Stanford economist’s algorithm reveals increasing polarization in American political speech

Aug. 31, 2016, 1:00 a.m.

Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow and his team have developed an algorithm that revealed a drastic change in American political speech, which, according to their research, is becoming increasingly polarized.

Gentzkow, Stanford professor of economics and study co-author, observed that the Democratic and Republican Parties have always had different ideological viewpoints, but that in the past, both Democrats and Republicans used similar language in speeches to Congress. According to Gentzkow, it is now easier to tell if a member of Congress is a Democrat or Republican through their choice of language when discussing the same issues than ever before.

For example, after 49 people were killed in a June shooting in Orlando, Democrats referred to the event as a “mass shooting” while Republicans talked about it as a “terrorist attack.” According to Gentzkow, this is one of many examples of how language is being used to frame events and issues in deliberate and different ways, even when both groups are talking about the same matter.

“If you frame ideas so differently that you can no longer communicate, that leads to more and more ideological segregation,” said Matthew Taddy, co-author of the working paper. “It’s a bit of a troubling thing.”

With the current election, it is frequently observed that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns use language in different ways. According to Taddy, this research reveals that the current partisanship of political speech is a result of a shift in 1994, when the Republicans took back control of Congress. The algorithm guesses which party a politician identifies with based on their speech, and starting in 1994, the success rate of this algorithm rose.

According to Jesse Shapiro, another author on the study, the 1994 election signaled a change in the way politicians used language due to the effective Republican plan of framing issues in a more strategic way.

“The historical records suggest that [in 1994] there was a real innovation and the technology for political persuasion basically figured how to use focus groups, how to use survey type methods to figure out what words work best and be very deliberate about getting the whole party on one page using the right talking points,” Gentzkow said.

While rhetoric has always been used by politicians to reach people, politicians began thinking about framing their ideas at this time rather than earlier due to the introduction of cable television. With cable, cameras were being brought into Congress which caused politicians to see their speeches as a way to reach citizens directly rather than simply discuss ideas.

“When you’re standing up and giving a speech in Congress, you were more and more giving the speech to produce sound bites,” Gentzkow said. “I think that [cable] facilitated the innovation in 1994. It made it more effective.”

This crafting of language was quickly adopted by Democrats and continues in current American political speech, according to the paper. After the success of the 1994 election, where the Republican party took back control of Congress under the “Contract with America,” a document written detailing the plans of the party, both parties saw language as a tool to frame their ideas. In the “Contract with America,” politicians used very specific language which proved so effective that Democrats also began framing ideas differently, resulting in the increasing polarization of political speech.

“Groups who share a common language for a whole variety of reasons, that strengthens their identity,” Gentzkow said. “I think the immediate effect politicians had in mind [when using partisan language] was persuasion, and I think the side effect was…strengthening this sense of…tribal identity among voters.”

With every speech broadcasted, politicians are deliberately choosing their words to frame issues in ways that will reflect well on their party’s viewpoints. According to Gentzkow, the language used in these speeches “filters down” to the media and everyday speech which greatly affects how we all speak about and observe politics.

“Groups that speak different languages are likely to behave in very different ways…and language is something that can strengthen identities within groups and potentially deepen division between groups,” Gentzkow said. “It seems plausible that this kind of language has something to do [with deepening divisions].”

 

Contact Shilpa Sajja at 19ssajja ‘at’ castilleja.org.

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