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.
Bail, Christopher A. et al. 2018. “Exposure to opposing views on social media can increase political polarization.” PNAS 115(37): 9216-9221. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1804840115.
Bilewicz, Michal et al. 2012. “Nouns Cut Slices: Effects of Linguistic Forms on Intergroup Bias.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 32(1): 62-83. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0261927X12463209.
Bruneau, Emile et al. 2015. “The ascent of man: Theoretical and Empirical Evidence for Blatant Dehumanization.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 109(5): 901-931. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/pspp0000048.
Bruneau, Emile et al. 2020. “Intergroup Contact Reduces Dehumanization and Meta- Dehumanization: Cross-Sectional, Longitudinal, and Quasi-Experimental Evidence From 16 Samples in Five Countries.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 00(0): 1-15. https://doi-org.ezproxysuf.flo.org/10.1177%2F0146167220949004.
Iyengar, Shanto and Masha Krupenkin. 2018. “The Strengthening of Partisan Affect.” Advances in Political Psychology 39(S1): 201-218. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/pops.12487.
Iyengar, Shanto et al. 2019. “The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization in the United States.” Annual Review of Political Science 22: 129-26. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-051117-073034.
McCoy, Jennifer, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer. 2018. “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities.” American Behavioral Scientist 62(1): 16-42. https://doi-org.ezproxysuf.flo.org/10.1177%2F0002764218759576.
Ndahiro, Kennedy. 2019. “In Rwanda, We Know All About Dehumanizing Language.” The Atlantic, April 13, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/04/rwanda-shows-how-hateful-speech-leads-violence/587041/.
Your article does a wonderful job of shedding light on the psychological factors behind contemporary polarization. There is considerable merit to the idea of approaching polarization from a scientific, rather than an emotional or strictly political, viewpoint. Reading the post, I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with the “division” diagnosis but found the conclusion’s suggested remedy to the problem largely inadequate. The notion that pundits and political elites are ignorant of the toxicity of polarization seems ill-conceived; it is inherently in the interest of media companies to amplify divisive political rhetoric to generate increased revenue, evidenced by the fact Fox News is the nation’s most watched news outlet. Furthermore, the idea that citizens must monitor the quality of their news sources is predicated on the belief that all citizens have the time, willpower, and capacity to vet information they are presented with – a dubious supposition at best. The use of Russian bots in the 2016 US presidential election, spreading disinformation across cyberspace and social media, highlighted the inability of the American electorate to discern truth from falsehoods. Increased pressure on technology companies to demarcate false or misleading content strikes me as a more effective method for bridging “America’s divided mind” than educational campaigns, though implementing the two strategies in tandem could also be useful. It is evident that the current hyper-polarization will be detrimental to the state of American democracy; should a post-Trump era emerge this week, it will be interesting to see if national political discourse will remain as inflammatory as it has been the past four years.
Connor, I was so interested to read your presentation of the science (psychology) of polarization, especially having read hundreds of more emotional and political explanations that have not quite done the matter justice. Your ability to build a compelling argument around this political psychology of polarization is impressive and the article is incredibly engaging. However, I have to agree with Tommy that I was skeptical when you suggested potential fixes in your final paragraph. While they are certainly logical, I am dubious that American citizens and politicians will take matters into their own hands to help fight polarization, as the very crux of your argument is that it’s near impossible to empathize with the “other”. Getting liberals to watch Fox and conservatives to watch CNN seems like a difficult enough task, and that’s just the most superficial layer. While I think that suggesting Americans be w
….continued*: While I think that suggesting Americans vet the information they digest is completely rational, the very basis of polarization seems to be irrational. Overall, I really appreciated your argument, but I think that the possible fixes you present are a little bit optimistic and I, unfortunately, don’t have the faith in our fellow Americans that you do. You suggest “increased inter group and inter party communication,” but I’m not sure how we can make that happen if people are so opposed to not only hearing opposing opinions but being in the same social circles as those with differing views.
*sorry, not sure why this comment got cut off.
This was a very interesting article to read and gave a view of polarization that I hadn’t considered previously. I do believe polarization is one of the largest threats to U.S. democracy currently, so it was somewhat hopeful to read that it might not be as severe as I previously thought. I’m not sure I agree with the possible resolutions posed. I do agree that the solution has to start with the elites and party officials, however, I’m not sure if it is in their best interest to dampen polarization. On the one hand lessening polarization would make passing legislation easier in Washington, but on the other hand it does give party officials a loyal unwavering base of support. I do agree, however, with the increased need for dialogue among citizens of different parties, though with the current climate and echo chamber of social media and I’m not sure how that would occur.
Your blog post offers a very insightful and well-written explanation of the psychological aspects of polarization, and offers generally strong evidence to argue that political divisions in the U.S. tend to be overestimated by the U.S. electorate. I found your point about the comparative lack of dehumanizing rhetoric in U.S. politics particularly compelling, however, I do have some reservations about the rest of your evidence. Your last piece of evidence shows that, on issues such as gun ownership and border control, members of each party overestimate by a sizable margin how radical the “median voter” of the opposite party is. You take these findings to demonstrate that, in actuality, the two parties are not as polarized as most voters assume. However, I am unsure how relevant the viewpoint of the “median voter” in either party actually is. In a very well known 2010 paper titled “Leapfrog Representation and Extremism: A Study of American Voters and Their Members in Congress,” Joseph Bafumi and Michael C. Herron convincingly demonstrated that the elected leaders of both parties are substantially more radical than the median voter in either party (Republican leaders are more conservative and Democratic leaders are more liberal). Subsequently, although it may be true that Americans overestimate the polarization of their average counterparts, it may very well be the case that they are accurately assessing the polarization of their political leaders, which, in terms of concrete policy creation, is obviously more significant. The “gap” between real and perceived differences within the parties could be significantly smaller when it comes to the elected leaders of those parties, which could mean that U.S. polarization may not be as effectively reduced via the means that you recommend.
Connor, this article was awesome and enlightening, it puts in concrete numbers just how polarized the nation has become and the dangers behind this. I had never really considered the self-fulfilling aspect of polarization or how much we misperceive an opponent’s opinion of us, and I had to stop and consider the fact that I am certainly no exception to this either. Your presentation of dehumanization was definitely my favorite because I really enjoyed your use of historical events in Germany and Rwanda to explain the effects, it really makes clear the political violence connection.
This is a very well-written and though-out post. The way it examines the way people view the political positions and attitudes of the people that disagree with them cuts to the core of the issue of polarization, both providing a better picture of the state of polarization in the US and the ways in which polarization can interact with the process of democratic erosion. Political polarization, mistrust of opponents, and the resulting deprioritization of democratic norms relative to political goals is one of the key drivers of democratic erosion. Additionally, the fact that people have misperceptions about how politically polarized the US actually is could potentially provide insight into ways to combat polarization. I agree with the author’s conclusion that further educating people about these misconceptions, as well as general cross-partisan communication, could help remedy polarization to an extent. I would actually emphasize this point even more — given polarization’s centrality within the process of democratic erosion in a society, combating political polarization and mistrust through communication should be the primary focus of efforts to combat long-term democratic erosion, especially in cases like the US where there seems to be a disconnect between the perception and reality of polarization. It could also be potentially meaningful to explore the effects of different methods of communication on polarization; this post mentions how echo chamber effects can increase polarization, but how can a society motivate people to engage with sources and people they disagree with? And how does the recent phenomenon of post-truth politics in the US affect this question? If people disagree on basic facts, can they really communicate in a constructive way? This piece provides an important perspective on polarization, and opens up key questions to be thought about in the future.