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The Influence of Cable TV, Talk Radio and Social Media upon American Politics and Our Polarized Electorate

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Charles Wallace
June 27, 2017

The Presidential election of 2016 was an election like no other in United States history. The typical banter between candidates became a mudslinger’s paradise, even pulling the voting public into the volatile candidate fracas. Many times they became active participants in the hostile demonstrations, and at times violent protests, between Democratic and Republican supporters. Were the candidates solely to blame for the political wedge driven between the supporters of these two political parties, or was something else partially responsible? What effect did cable television, talk radio and social media have upon the candidates, their political party platforms and on those who decided to fully support a Liberal or Conservative platform?

According to Ezra Klein in his Vox.com article, Something is breaking American politics, but it’s not social media, many believe social media is to blame for the extreme partisanship of the last election. Klein raises the question, “What if social media isn’t driving rising polarization in American Politics?” She refers to a March 2017 paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Is the Internet Causing Political Polarization? Evidence from Demographics by Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapirowhich which “tests the conventional wisdom about polarization on social media nine ways from Sunday and finds that it’s wrong, or at least badly incomplete.” The results indicate “polarization increases more for the old than the young.” Klein then asks the question, “If Facebook is the problem, then how come the problem is worst among those who don’t use Facebook?”

Klein goes into further detail indicating, “It was seniors – only 6 percent of whom use Twitter who pushed Trump to the White House.” This fact backed by the information contained in the Social Media Fact Sheet on Demographics of Social Media Users and Adoption in the United States, by the Pew Research Center in January 2017. Klein further states, “Trump is the Twitter-using president, not the president chosen by Twitter users.”

If it’s not social media where seniors get their information from, could it be from cable TV news and talk radio? Klein reports, “More than a third of Talk Radio listeners are over age 65 and half of Fox News’s audience is over 68.” She further details, Trump won 53 percent of voters ages 65 and over, but only 37 percent of voters 29 and younger.” With this information, is it safe to conclude polarizing Conservative material is predominantly broadcast to seniors via cable TV news and talk radio whereas most of polarizing Liberal comments are sent via social media? If this is true, what will occur in future elections, when those more dependent upon cable TV news and talk radio for their political information, the Traditionalist and Baby Boomer generations, as indicated by the Center for Generational Kinetics, give way to the Generation X, Y & Z populations?

graph online

A July 2016 article in The Modern News Consumer titled, About four-in-ten Americans often get news online, indicates the sharp disparity between the four main age groups, 18-29, 30-49, 50-64 and 65+ on how they often get news via TV, online, radio and in print newspapers. Television is relied upon a great deal more in the 50-64 and 65+ age groups, almost 28 percent to 40 percent more than the 30-49-year-old group. Radio and print newspaper interest drops significantly in the 18-29-year-old group. What happens as Generation X members retire and become more sedentary? Will they increase their online viewing and communication due to the fact TV broadcasting is declining at a rapid rate?  Will Generation Y & Z members depend solely upon social media for their information?

It appears the driving force in the last presidential election was the tremendous influence of cable TV news and talk radio upon the senior population. Generation X, Y & Z populations were influenced more by social media sites. All sites influenced the political polarization of our Nation. The information sites and platforms of communication will change as technology changes, creating further political communication issues in the future. Cable TV may become a thing of the past. Seniors of today and their social problems and situations will differ as each younger aging population group reaches 65 years of age.

Seniors came out to vote in force in this past election. Other voting populations were less enthusiastic. As our senior populations morph from Traditionalist and Baby Boomer to Generation X,Y and Z in the very near future, economic, health and environmental issues will hold greater meaning and possible volatility to them personality as time moves on. Will the social media sites pick up the slack left by cable TV news and talk radio and continue the practice of polarized broadcasts dividing our nation’s voters, communities and families? Only time will tell.


Author: Chuck Wallace is the President of the Washington State Emergency Management Association (WSEMA). He has an MPA and speaks throughout the country on issues related to emergency management barriers and practice. His email is [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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