We Probably Need to Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine


The problem of polarization continues and is likely to be the defining political characteristic of contemporary United States. The US populace has been polarized before but it is typically over a single issue. Slavery, for example, in the 19th century. Below is some data from the Pew Foundation on the increasing tendency toward rigid opinions and polarized values.

As the Pew report concluded, the fault is structural; it is not the sort of problem that can be solved by an individual or piece of legislation. Political parties are more ideologically coherent than they’ve been probably at any time since the Civil War. As citizens spend more time talking to those who are like them – which is intensified in the current social media environment – they become more easily reinforced for their particular perspective. The literature by Sunstein and others conclude that this mediated world of interaction with others who hold the same opinion as you do causes those opinions to become rigid and increasingly unmovable. And the dynamic of polarization is increasing. But with the realignment of ideologies that started over the issue of civil rights in the 20th century, ideological purity became a bigger factor in American elections.

Ideological purity is a dangerous form of essentialism. One’s beliefs become so strong, and the sense of ingroup and outgroup become so clarified, that perceptions of the outgroup are assumed to be biologically natural.

Some data suggest that the problem of bias is characteristic of both liberals and conservatives (Baum and Groeling, 2008, Political Communication) are responsible for polarization because both parties have media outlets that are biased in one direction or the other, and attract large audiences. It might be time to reinstate the “Fairness Doctrine”, which legally guarantees equal time and presentation of both sides of an issue. And although such a political policy would be difficult if not impossible to institute, it is a step in the right direction with respect to the benefits of hearing both sides and suppressing the power of money in campaigns.


The Table above shows that from 1994 to 2014 a larger percent of Republicans became consistently conservative. And a larger percent of Democrats were consistently liberal. The two groups – liberals and conservatives – consistently drifted toward more rigid ideological opinions that do not vary and are less subject to moderation and persuasive influences.


The data reflected in the bar graph above shows that the two parties have increasingly unfavorable attitudes about the other. From 1994 to 2014 the unfavorable attitudes about the other party has more than doubled. I don’t need to reiterate the danger of these data. They make working together and solving problems in any sort of bipartisan way almost impossible.

Note: An earlier version of this posting was October 30, 2019.


About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on May 20, 2020, in Democracy, Media and politics, Peace and Conflict Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Harvey Jassem

    As you’ll recall, my Ph.D. dissertation and early work focused on the old Fairness Doctrine, and while I lamented its demise, it’s not going to reappear. Indeed, as sad as the situation is today regarding polarization, the premise for the FD, that the public relied on a very limited number of outlets for news, and those outlets used the limited public spectrum, is far more dead today than it was 40 years ago. The argument then was that people needed government protection in order to have access to another point of view. Now, there are many points of view available. Indeed, that may have contributed to the polarization. We barely rely on the spectrum for our news/information. And if you wish for more moderation and centrality, the FD would not have been your friend in any case. As much as I supported the FD, it would not cure what ails us.

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