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Talk by University at Buffalo political scientists explores realities of political polarization

Release Date: February 10, 2016

“It’s easy to romanticize periods in American history when we didn’t have polarization, and say those periods represent what politics is supposed to be like, but polarization is actually the norm in American politics.”
Jacob Neiheisel, assistant professor of political science
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Political divisions in American politics are deep and real, yet the idea persists that America is a moderate nation and that most Americans are moderates, writes University at Buffalo political scientist James Campbell in his forthcoming book, “Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.”

Campbell’s UB colleague Jacob Neiheisel, assistant professor of political science, agrees on the issues related to polarization, but reaches his conclusions from a different perspective.

These two levels of analysis are the focus of the next Scholars on the Road lecture presented by the UB College of Arts and Sciences, which will take place at 6 p.m. on March 8 at the law firm of Hunton & Williams, 2200 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., in Washington, D.C.

Now in its third season, Scholars on the Road features UB faculty members discussing their research and areas of expertise with alumni, taking the classroom experience and sharing it with UB alumni here in Buffalo and around the country.

“The polarization of American politics is a critically important question for the country,” says Bruce Pitman, dean of UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Professors Campbell and Neiheisel will be discussing timely issues as the nation starts the primary election season.”

Scholars on the Road events are free, but guests are asked to register in advance.  A schedule of this season’s remaining events is available online.

The different approaches Campbell and Neiheisel bring to their discussion of polarization will provide guests with viewpoints on the topic from a variety of angles.

“My research looks at the psychological foundations that would sustain political polarization along with the technological advancements and developments that might encourage it,” says Neiheisel, an expert on political communication and campaigns.

His current research looks at various algorithms used by search engines that push results toward specific users.

Campbell, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UB, is an expert on American politics, campaigns, public opinions and election forecasting. His latest book will be published in the fall by Princeton University Press. Campbell has served as a program officer at the National Science Foundation and as an American Political Science Association Congressional fellow.

He’ll zoom out from the micro-level of analysis to look at the big picture of polarization.

“Conventional wisdom in the political science literature is that polarization started with political leaders while the rest of the public followed to either side,” says Campbell. “Some of that has occurred, but my contention is that most of it started with the public – the public moved first and the leaders were brought along.”

The current wave of polarization started in the late 1960s, according to Campbell.  The counterculture, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement contributed to breaking many issue wide open.

“There was also a new generation at that time that didn’t push issues into the background because of major events like World War II, the Great Depression or the Cold War,” says Campbell. “These factors unified the country in an unusual way.”

But that unity was unusual, an eccentric hitch in the orbit of American politics. Both scholars say that political polarization is actually a return to politics as usual, “nasty and brutish as it is,” according to Campbell.

“It’s easy to romanticize periods in American history when we didn’t have polarization, and say those periods represent what politics is supposed to be like, but polarization is actually the norm in American politics,” says Neiheisel.

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