Pew has some new data out looking at how people’s feelings about major institutions (church, banks, unions, colleges, and the media) have changed with time. The picture at the current moment is roughly what we would expect:
The longitudinal data is more interesting. Evidently, as recently as 2015 most Republicans liked the universities. Also interesting: Democrat support for the universities is increasing.
Colleges are becoming a partisan issue, which is appropriate since they function as partisan institutions. That being said, millennial Republicans still like universities:
Among Democrats, age doesn’t predict support for colleges. Poor Democrats like universities less than rich Democrats. The opposite is true for Republicans.
Republicans have long known that the news media is partisan, but their dislike of media has grown in recent years.
Democrats used to think that the news media was moving the country in a non-liberal direction, but now they seem to be gaining an awareness of the left wing bias in media and, therefore, increasingly approve of it. Unfortunately, Pew did not release the way that millennial Republicans feel about the news media.
Increasingly, Republicans do not like traditional institutions because said institutions promote anti-traditional values. We might expect, then, that conservatives would create new institutions.
To some degree, this is happening. Offline, the right has long had a set of think tanks (Heritage, Cato, AEI, etc) which have released academic papers outside the university context. Today, individual professors like Jordan Peterson are getting paid a lot of money, via crowdsourcing, to essentially give lectures online. In the News realm, we’ve recently seen a huge rise in right wing podcasting, and sites like Breitbart and the Daily Wire.
Just as the left wing institutions are not legitimate in the eyes of the right, the left has been quick to delegitimize new right institutions in their circles.
All this must have the effect of furthering a kind of epistemic gap between republicans and democrats in which they not only disagree about the world but also disagree about how to find out about the world.
In theory, this could make political debate less productive, but this is only true to the degree that political debates are really about facts to begin with. On the other hand, if there are fewer legitimate opposition voices then there may be less fear of criticism, and this could drive both sides to say increasingly false things.
We can see this with Trump. Trump often says obviously false things, but he also works hard to delegitimize those voices which point out that things he says are false (e.g. the news media, Lyin’ Ted Cruz, etc.). This may be an abnormally transparent model of something happening more generally in society.
The New York Times, CNN, and academics, also often say false things. But who will point this out? People in right-wing institutions, who liberals don’t consider legitimate to begin with. And NYT writers know this, meaning that they don’t need to fear their critics and say can so ever
And NYT writers know this, meaning that they don’t need to fear their critics and say can so more ridiculous things than they might have said a few decades ago when a response from a right-wing institution (e.g. the Wallstreet Journal, National Review, etc) might be taken more seriously.
On the (really) far right, this phenomenon is ubiquitous. Arguments can be disregarded by people who do not subscribe to far right wing politics, which is essentially everyone. Because of this, beliefs that are well known to be false by almost everyone can propagate (e.g. revisionist accounts of the evolution of humans, bizarre claims about Jews, extremely exaggerated accounts of psychological sex differences, etc.).
I would not be surprised if the polarization of major institutions has a similar (but more modest) effect on society in general and, as time goes on, partisans believe increasingly different and increasingly outlandish things as a result. This polarization could also contribute to a very ugly change in people’s moral intuitions, but that is beyond the scope of this post.