What 'Pantsuit Nation' tells us about political discourse in 2016

A 'secret' Facebook group for Hillary Clinton supporters has gone viral, attracting some 2 million members in the weeks leading up to the election. 

Chris Keane/Reuters
Supporters cheer for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina on November 8, 2016.

A "secret" Facebook group for Hillary Clinton supporters went viral this week, bringing its roughly 2 million members into the mass media spotlight. 

"Pantsuit Nation," an invite-only group created just over two weeks ago, began as an effort to get Clinton fans to wear the Democratic nominee's signature pantsuit look to the polls. But in the weeks since its inception, its original members say, the group has transformed into a "safe space" of sorts for Clinton supporters to coalesce and celebrate their candidate without negative feedback from non-supporters. 

"I think the real feat of this group has been its ability to honor each member's personal story and celebrate all the reasons why this election is the most important of our lifetimes without resorting to the usual vitriol that seems to plague many other spaces these days," the group's creator, Libby Chamberlain, told Buzzfeed News. 

Pantsuit Nation and its strictly enforced rules, which include no negative posts about Mrs. Clinton or her opponents, no debating political matters, and no sharing news articles, speak to a growing demand for, and shift toward, enclosed online communities that function as "safe spaces" for political discourse in an increasingly polarized political climate, experts say, reflecting widening divisions along partisan lines in all facets of life. 

As one of the most divisive presidential elections in US history reaches its climax, surveys show that animosity between members of opposing political parties is the highest it's been in decades. Add that to the fact that political discourse on social media has been "pretty negative and vitriolic for quite some time," and you've got an online environment in which polarization often takes the form of personal attacks, says Kevin Arceneaux, a professor of political science at Temple University in Philadelphia, Penn. 

"Social media is kind of a canvas, and the divisions that we have in society get thrown on that canvas and we can see that more sharply," he tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. 

Now, as a result, we've begun to see a shift toward "walled garden" communities such as "Pantsuit Nation" on Facebook and other social networking sites, says Itai Himelboim, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Georgia. This shift, he says, reflects a natural, age-old tendency to associate ourselves with others who hold similar views. 

"Groups like 'Pantsuit Nation' simply capture the same behavior that people were exhibiting much before the internet," he says. "People will create subgroups of likeminded others online and offline. It's human nature."

But as we grow more polarized politically, that tendency has grown stronger in all aspects of life, political scientists say. 

"People are associating more with their own types, so there is less knowledge and less connection," John Fortier, the director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., told the Monitor in June. "Marriages, neighborhoods, churches – more of the same people are associating with each other than ever before. The other party seems more alien…. There is much more self-selection." 

Partisan polarization and animosity, both in real life and on social media, tend to correlate with consumption of partisan media, Natalie Jomini Stroud, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, tells the Monitor in an email: "Those using more likeminded political media tend to be more politically polarized, feeling more favorably toward their own side and more unfavorable toward the political opposition."

But while online communities such as "Pantsuit Nation" can similarly serve as an echo chamber, experts say, they aren't inherently damaging to nationwide political discourse across parties, and can be a healthy forum for people to share ideas and personal experiences with likeminded strangers without fear of personal attack. 

"Being a member of Pantsuit Nation does not necessarily feed polarization if the members of the group make the effort to seek out diverse views elsewhere, online or offline," says John Parmelee, a professor of communication at the University of North Florida, in an email to the Monitor. If they don't, he adds, "That's bad for democracy." 

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