Trust, Polarization and Framing

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Carlin & Love’s extensive study looking at democracies in different countries revealed that, in all the countries that were studied, participants were less likely to trust a total stranger if they were told the stranger was politically aligned with the opposite party as the participant (the opposite being true for strangers that aligned with the same party). One aspect of the paper we did not discuss in class, however, was the subsequent study done after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Carlin & Love compared these findings of lack of trust for the opposite party before and after the killing of Osama bin Laden, taking advantage of the fact that this event happened to happen before their results were published, and actually found that the phenomenon of distrust against opposite parties was greatly decreased after the event.

The authors link the reduction of the partisan trust gap (not trusting strangers of the opposite party) after the killing of Osama bin Laden to the perceived polarization of the parties. I will be assuming that the data they were comparing before and after bin Laden’s death was for the United States, since that was the country involved in the killing that they had data for. The idea is that before this major event, it was easy to see a big difference between Democrats and Republicans, because the current events news did not focus on seeing the USA as a single country, but as two separate parties that were pitted against each other. Once bin Laden was killed, the bigger picture was focused on, where the competition was now between the USA and bin Laden – and the USA won. According to Carlin & Love, the perceived polarization after bin Laden’s death was reduced, since the opposite party was now seen as another American worth cooperating with rather than an “other” to be pitted against.

In thinking about the second part of this study, I can’t help but think of our class discussion about framing. It’s hard to decide what came first- the hyper-polarized political parties or the framing of those parties as polarized by the media -but what Carlin & Love tell us is that the perceived polarization of parties can in fact be changed, at least given major events like the killing of bin Laden, which provide a bigger picture that unifies two previously competing entities (opposite political parties) into one in-group (the country) that now sees a different, greater out-group (in this case bin Laden).

If the killing of a known terrorist, and the framing of the media to unify the United States as a country vs terrorism, is what was needed to reduce the partisan trust gap in the USA, then what would it take to reduce that gap in other countries? Taking it further, what would it take to reduce the trust gap between perceived “others” when looking at an international level? Sophia, in class, brought up one thing that could (or at least should) be making parties and countries alike reduce the perceived polarization – global warming -though we have yet to see this unify countries on an international level. maggiel2019 brings up mass shootings, which is an interesting example to think about in the context of my reading response. Though Maggie argues that the effect here is more polarizing, because of how the media frames these shootings by presenting a pro-gun vs anti-gun scenario. As an international student who had never had to think about mass shootings, I thought that mass shootings would be unifying rather than polarizing, since I’d expect the country to come together to come to a solution, but that’s clearly not what has actually happened, as the framing has polarized the two sides further. I would be interested to see if alternative news coverage of mass shootings could ever lead to a less polarized and more unifying view of these events, and if we would see a reduced partisan trust gap as a result.

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