A Review and Provocation: On Polarization and Platforms

Daniel Kreiss, Shannon McGregor

New Media & Society

(In)Equity, Political Processes

Communication Studies, Elections, Polarization, Political Communication, Social Media

Inequality is a bigger threat to democracy than polarization.

In fact, polarization is often a sign of a healthy democracy beginning to confront systemic inequalities. And yet scholarship about technology and political communication often frames polarization as the biggest ongoing threat to democracy in the United States. This seeming contradiction, CITAP’s Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor argue, is about race.

In “A review and provocation: On polarization and plaftorms,” Kreiss and McGregor point out that the content of the poles in polarization is both important—and often ignored. Polarization does not account for the crucial differences between, for example, white supremacists and racial justice activists. Black Lives Matter and Stop the Steal are not equally good movements for democracy: as BLM activists explicitly calls for greater equality in a democratic society, Stop the Steal activists seek to overturn elections.

As Kreiss and McGregor put it, “polarization is… the necessary byproduct of the struggle to realize democracy in unequal societies.”

If political communication and media and technology scholars want to understand polarization, they cannot continue to do so from a power-disinterested lens. Polarization and systemic inequality are co-produced. And yet frequently the problems caused by polarization are blamed on those simply calling for justice. Ultimately, scholars frame struggles for justice as “polarizing” because:

our field’s conceptualizations of democracy are so thin, solidarity is so treasured, racial analytics are so rare, and historical memory is so short. It is not polarization, but racial repression that has been far more challenging and destabilizing to democracy over the past 300 years if looked at from a non-White perspective.