Greg Erlandson

What if there was not one but two chasms dividing Americans today? An abyss separates the reds and the blues, the ideologically conservative and the ideologically progressive. It’s the polar divide that cripples Congress and makes every issue, from library books to traffic stops, a flashpoint.

The other chasm is less noticed, but it’s the one that exists between those who are heavily engaged in reading and following all things politics and those who are not. It’s a divide between those who are strongly engaged and those who aren’t.

The second chasm was described by Yanna Krupnikov, political scientist co-author of “The Other Divide: Polarization and Disengagement in American Politics”. Krupnikov was recently interviewed by Kevin Loker for the American Press Institute. Loker has an abiding interest in the subject of polarization.

I have an abiding interest in the subject of polarization in our church and often find that research in the secular world has implications for our Catholic world.

Krupnikov’s research suggests that “the growing partisan divide in America can only be understood in the context of the growing divide between people who spend their day following politics and those who don’t.”

Those who follow politics obsessively are called “deeply involved”. They check their Twitter feeds, watch the news channels and constantly talk about politics. “They hardly look like anyone else,” Krupinikov said.

This does not mean that “everyone” is ignorant or completely disengaged. It may describe a group, but it doesn’t describe those who “follow their local news and…actually know about the big events that are happening.” They just aren’t committed to it on an hourly basis.

The challenge, of course, is that journalists who are deeply engaged in their work often gravitate toward others who are deeply engaged. Journalists therefore tend to overestimate the percentage of the population that is “deeply involved”. While journalists might estimate highly engaged and highly polarized people at 50% of the population, Krupnikov says the true percentage is around 20%.

Overemphasizing the most engaged (and often the most ideologically polarized) has implications for how journalists portray these divisions around the world and, ultimately, how Americans perceive their own society.

Looking at the church, it struck me that there is also a “deeply involved” cohort in our parishes and dioceses. They follow controversies and developments more closely. They can be influencers in their local parish, for better or for worse. This level of commitment does not make them more spiritual or more holy. It may just mean that their degree of involvement is much more obsessive and intense.

In terms of Catholic media, the “deeply involved” may be more connected to national Catholic media, which is often more polarized and editorially polarizing. One concern I have is that the decline of local Catholic media means there is less local and moderating influence, a concern that has been recognized in secular media as local newspapers die.

Studies show that in “information deserts,” counties with no local press, polarization increases, political involvement decreases, and corruption goes unchecked.

The danger is that we overestimate the “deeply involved”, unconsciously influenced by who is most present on social media or who fills the bishop’s mailbag each week. The challenge for church leaders is to avoid catering to the obsessives, to nurture Catholics who are engaged but not obsessed with church politics and trends, and to bridge those who may be on the periphery in terms of practice and belief.

Local Catholic media can help meet this challenge if they reflect and serve both the whole community and not just its most vocal cohort.

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Erlandson, director and editor of Catholic News Service, can be reached at gerlandson@catholicnews.com.