A Nation Fragmented: The Public Agenda in the Information Age, Jill A. Edy and Patrick C. Meirick
Is it even worth referring nowadays to the “American public”? This issue is at the center of A Nation Fragmented. Many have blamed partisan polarization for our current political ills. The parties have been unable to address important social problems and issues, ranging from recently salient ones such as the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism to long-term ones such as environmental crises, gun violence, and health care. Often the parties have been unable to agree on what constitutes a problem.
Communications professors Jill A. Edy and Patrick C. Meirick of the University of Oklahoma argue that our inability to act for the common good is due not mainly to polarization but to fragmentation. There is no longer much consensus on which issue or issues are of central concern to the public. The authors document this fragmentation of the public agenda primarily by way of opinion surveys—especially the answers to Gallup’s long-standing question about the nation’s “most important problem.” They show that this version of the public agenda has become more diverse over time, with attention becoming less focused and spread more thinly across many issues.
What is driving this blurrier and more divided attention? The end of the Cold War and the profusion of organizations have contributed to it, the authors argue. Through a series of careful regression analyses, Edy and Meirick find that the communications media have greatly exacerbated the problem. A half century ago, three television networks ruled the airwaves, and almost everyone took a daily newspaper. Since then, we have seen the rise of cable news, right-wing media, social media, and other internet diversions.
But this fracturing progresses not because broadcast news has been eclipsed or because different media push different issues. Edy and Meirick find that cable news agendas, including right-wing ones, are similar to those of broadcast news. Indeed, they find that broadcast news influences the public agenda in some ways more strongly than before. For what Edy and Meirick call “unobtrusive” issues, such as crime, media influence partly trumps the influence of personal experience. The problem is that because there are so many issues to choose from, the news rarely focuses enough on a given issue to help forge a consensus on priorities and mainly blurs the focus even further.
Edy and Meirick argue that political leaders also aggravate the problem. They have incentives to speak to groups about their specific concerns rather than responding to broader ones. They find, for instance, that as more issues vie for public attention, it is less likely that the president will respond to the issue or issues most concerning the public. As a result, the wealthy and well connected gain from public policy at the expense of the majority. As scholars of power noted long ago, if the issues and problems faced by everyday people never reach the political agenda, those benefiting from the status quo gain.
Although the points are well taken, I think this fracturing is more of a problem for the left. Right-wing media, political organizations, and the Republican Party have succeeded in establishing “government” as a mainstay among Gallup’s important problems, and Republicans have repeatedly cut taxes, especially for the wealthy. When in power, Republicans often ignore or aggravate salient social problems, the coronavirus being a case in point. On top of having to address crises, Democrats have many groups jostling for attention to neglected social problems, but they are structurally disadvantaged, both in gaining power and in legislating.
But these are minor quibbles. A Nation Fragmented identifies an issue that has been underappreciated and subjects it to close analyses that will be valuable well beyond communications scholars for anyone hoping better to understand our current political situation.
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