Conversations between die-hard liberals and conservatives are so unproductive that it sometimes seems they might as well be speaking different languages.
Newly published research that looks at ideologically driven blogs suggests that, in a sense, they are.
Writing in the journal Political Psychology, a research team led by Jennifer Brundidge of the University of Texas at Austin reports left- and right-wing bloggers communicate with their readers in very different ways.
In short, it finds liberals use more complex arguments, acknowledging different points of view before asserting the (alleged) superiority of their own. Conservatives, in contrast, use simpler arguments and are less likely to concede there are any other reasonable viewpoints.
"Our research suggests that, despite the concerns raised by some scholars, emotion in language does not appear to impinge on reason." Even extremely partisan blogs tend to frame their arguments in intellectual terms.
The researchers examined 528 posts from prominent American political blogs—half from conservative sites. Focusing on 23 political debates that raged between 2009 and 2012—during President Obama’s first term in office—they chose “24 posts drawn from the same time frame, 12 from liberal sites and 12 from conservative sites.” Right-wing websites included Breitbart, Red State, and The Blaze; left-wing ones included Crooks and Liars, Talking Points Memo, and Daily Kos.
The posts were analyzed in several ways, including for their use of emotional language and, most importantly, their “integrative complexity.” That term refers to the extent to which they consider events and issues from multiple perspectives.
First, the good news: “Our research suggests that, despite the concerns raised by some scholars, emotion in language does not appear to impinge on reason,” the researchers report. Even extremely partisan blogs tend to frame their arguments in intellectual terms.
But precisely how they do that varies considerably along the ideological spectrum.
“Even as liberals selectively expose themselves to exclusively ideologically consistent blogs, they may still encounter alternative points of view, albeit ones filtered by like-minded opinion leaders,” the researchers write.
In contrast, “the right wing of the blogosphere is less inclined than the left to acknowledge multiple sides of political arguments," they write, "which may lead to further polarization in policy preferences among conservatives.”
In a sense, this is not surprising. A large amount of psychological research has found conservatives are less tolerant of ambiguity than liberals, so it makes sense that their blogs are less willing to acknowledge gray areas.
Nevertheless, this research suggests that the way we argue our positions is actually driving us farther apart.
“From the perspective of the left, the right’s more hierarchical and integratively simple approach may appear undemocratic, impersonal, and unreasonable,” the researchers write. “From the perspective of the right, the left’s more egalitarian and integratively complex approach may appear equivocal, ‘wishy-washy,’ or even unpatriotic.”
“This form of polarization,” they conclude, “seems at least as problematic to deliberation as the polarization of policy preferences.”