Polarization as a Business Model

Dr. Louis Perron
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Two things matter in Washington D.C.: votes and fundraising dollars.

A lot has been written about the polarization of U.S. politics, and how factors such as social media or redistricting are the reasons behind it. Here is a totally different way to look at it: polarization as a political  business model.

In the old days, one of the main reasons why people donated to a political campaign was access. Money was given to politicians with influence and the leadership PACs. The way to get money for fellow congressmen was to support the leadership and to toe the line.

As I have written before, the nature of fundraising is changing. Emotions have now become a major driving force to donate to a political campaign. The key here is to build a large base of small donors who donate repeatedly. These donors do not expect to ever meet the candidate. They donate because they are outraged, scandalized, or worried about something.

Now think hard about who else is increasingly driven by emotions? Correct, the media. The politicians who create the most controversy and who cry foul the loudest are often the ones who get the most coverage. So this is how the media and politicians work in tandem: the tv station gets more viewers, sells more ads at higher prices, while politicians get media exposure and can raise more campaign funds. In other words, politicians need the tv exposure more than the party leadership in congress.

So if you want to know why there seems not much decency left in U.S. politics, don’t even think about ideology. Polarization has very little to do with ideology in the sense of true convictions. Instead, let us take last week’s State of the Union Address as an example: members of congress heckle the president’s speech (chanting a campaign slogan), because this will give media attention, social media followers, and ultimately campaign donations. And even the current crisis with the historic enemy of the U.S., Russia, is being politicized by some. Gone are the days where, if anything, at least patriotism was a unifying force. That’s how far polarization as a business model has progressed.

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