Americans are not as polarized as we think we are. A new report from Beyond Conflict, a non-profit that leverages research from cognitive and behavioral science to address issues of conflict resolution, reconciliation and social change, finds that Democrats and Republicans in the United States misperceive the extent to which their opponents’ beliefs diverge with their own. In fact, this identity-based, adversarial framing of “us vs. them” in American politics exacerbates polarization, leading to warped perceptions of reality. These misperceptions proceed to influence individuals’ behavior, further polarizing historically deep divisions in the American electorate. If Americans are to reduce this partisan divide and reconcile differences, an initiative a plurality of Pennsylvania voters in a recent Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll indicated was the most important issue confronting the president-elect, findings from the Beyond Conflict study indicate efforts must be made to bring awareness to these misperceptions, increase inter-group dialogue, and address problematic framing of polarizing issues by opinion leaders.
In a recent Ford Hall Forum event, Tim Phillips, founder and CEO of Beyond Conflict articulated three psychological divisions in which Americans misperceive the extent the other party dehumanizes, dislikes, and disagrees with them. Phillips indicates that dehumanization, when one side views the other as sub-human, is a precursor to political violence. Historical and extreme examples of dehumanization include Nazi references to Jews as “rats and vermin,” as well as Hutu radio broadcasting in 1994 Rwanda labeling the Tutsi minority as “cockroaches.” On a 0-100 “Ascent of Man” scale, where 100 equals a modern human and 0 equals an ape-like ancestor, a nationally representative sample indicated that 79% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans overestimated the extent the other party dehumanizes them by an average of 32 and 55 points, respectively. Beyond Conflict calls this the “Dehumanization Divide,” a dangerous and potentially self-fulfilling prognosis, as misperceptions of dehumanization can lead to increased and reciprocal attitudes.
The second psychological divide regards the issue of affective polarization, defined in the US context as firm support of one’s own party, with a strong dislike and distrust of the opposing party due to their identity. Affective polarization in the US has been steadily increasing since the mid-1980s, which Stanford and Boston College political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin argue is due to three consequential alterations in politics and society. The first is a shift in party constituency, leading political affiliation to correspond more closely with social and cultural identity. The second change is the resulting increase in political homogeneity of family and social networks, while the third is the proliferation of news sources and their increased accessibility through technological advance.
Beyond Conflict employed a “Feeling Thermometer” to measure dislike in their survey, with feelings towards the other party being warmest at 100 and coldest at 0. The findings indicate substantial levels of inter-group dislike in the US, with Democrats rating their feelings towards Republicans at an average of 28 points, while Republicans rated Democrats an average of 34 points. This is consistent with the conclusions of Iyengar and Krupenkin who, using the same thermometer scale found that in the US between 2000 and 2016, intense dislike, defined as a rating of the other party as 0, increased by 13 percentage points from 8 percent to 21 percent. The “Dislike Divide” is illustrated with the observation that 82% of both Democrats and Republicans overestimated the extent the other party disliked them. Democrats perceived Republicans to dislike them 13 points more on average than in reality, while Republicans incorrectly judged Democrats to dislike them 17 points more on average.
The final psychological divide Beyond Conflict identified is the misperception of the extent to which Democrats and Republicans disagree on salient issues of immigration and gun control. On a scale of 0-100, where 0 equals completely open borders while 100 equals complete border shutdown, Democrats and Republicans held respective median scores of 35 and 75 points. However, Democrats perceived Republicans to have a median score of 92, while Republicans judged Democrats to have a median score of 9, differences of 17 and 26 points, respectively. The gun control issue further illustrates these misperceptions. On a scale of 0-100, with 0 equating to a repeal of the 2nd Amendment and ban on gun ownership, and 100 equating to no gun restrictions whatsoever, Democrats and Republicans had respective median scores of 35 and 74 points. Yet, similar to misperceptions on immigration, Democrats anticipated the median score of Republicans to be 94, while Republicans estimated Democrats’ median score at 11, respective differences of 20 and 24 points.
These findings indicate the United States currently experiences levels of toxic polarization that Phillips argues equates to a form of American sectarianism. Scott Warren, CEO of prominent civics education organization Generation Citizen and co-participant with Tim Phillips in the “America’s Divided Mind” Ford Hall Forum event, argues in agreement with Beyond Conflict’s findings that such misperceptions about the extent of dehumanization and dislike lead Americans to believe the opposing party “[doesn’t] want what’s best for the country.” Increasing affective polarization and misperceptions of dehumanization and disagreement have adverse implications for American democracy, and research indicates severe polarization can lead to democratic erosion. Beyond Conflict’s finding of correlation between the perceptions of the opposing political party as a threat to the country and belief they will abuse institutions to further their interests, putting “party over country,” leads to decreased trust in and recognition of the legitimacy of institutions and norms. Similarly, threats of political violence increase with perceptions that the opposing party presents an inherent, identity-based threat, and the probability of cooperation decreases with perceptions that association with the other side is useless or outright harmful.
Therefore, to alleviate these issues, Beyond Conflict argues increased awareness among the American public of this gap between perception and reality is essential. Elites and opinion leaders in the media should be educated on the negative effects of increasing toxic polarization, which generates diminished trust in democratic norms and institutions. Individuals must be vigilant about the quality of their news sources, as echo chambers in social media have been observed to increase political polarization, and misinformation can be deadly. Furthermore, as Tim Phillips argued, a fundamental driver of misperception between Democrats and Republicans about the extent of dehumanization, dislike, and disagreement is a lack of communication. Phillips succinctly observed that people want to be treated with respect. Increased inter-group and party communication will not only reduce actual and perceived levels of dehumanization, it will encourage individuals to see their opponents as they see themselves.
“America’s Divided Mind: Understanding the Psychology That Drives Us Apart.” 2020. Beyond Conflict 1-27. https://beyondconflictint.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Beyond-Conflict-America_s-Div-ided-Mind-JUNE-2020-FOR-WEB.pdf.
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