Opinion-Policy Nexus

American Politics and the Polarization Paradox: Is the Divide as Wide as we Think?

By Victoria Parker
Doctoral Student, Social Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

Anne Wilson
Professor, Social Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University

It hardly needs to be said that US politics is starkly polarized. It’s a regular talking point among politicians and pundits, touted as the cause of many ills. Considering the current political climate in the United States, it may come as a surprise that as recently as the 1950’s, the American Political Science Association diagnosed the opposite problem: the parties were urged to become more polarized. At that time, party positions overlapped and compromise was so common that voters faced a lack of clarity on what hard and fast values each party held. From the current vantage point, this past worry about too much overlap seems either quaint or bizarre, and the call for more polarization may strike a “be careful what you wish for” note; they wanted ideological clarity that offered voters real choice, but they got frothing hatred and gridlock instead.

Although it may seem obvious that the US today is more polarized than ever, it can be useful to step back and ask how we know this, and what we even mean by polarization – do we mean politicians or regular folks, and what is it about them that is polarizing? Polarization comes in many flavours, so although it’s invoked often, the people talking about it are not always talking about the same thing. First, elite polarization refers to the actions of politicians themselves. It’s clear that over time, US elected representatives have moved further apart, for example in voting patterns. Gone are the days of bipartisan compromise, replaced by an era of stubborn partisan allegiance. It’s evident not only in partisan voting patterns but also in cases of “politicians behaving badly.” Some prominent politicians (often those who get outsized media attention) have adopted more extreme tactics, wielding increasingly uncivil rhetoric that demonizes opponents. If certain political figures come to mind when you think “polarization” - you may not be wrong. 

What about polarization among the electorate (or “regular people”) – has it spiraled out of control? The answer is different depending how we ask the question. We sometimes ask how much voters’ policy positions have changed – that’s called ideological polarization. But we also often want to know how much people from opponent parties dislike each other – that’s called affective polarization. It turns out voters have become a little more divided over time on policies, but they’ve become a lot more divided emotionally. Since the 1970s, people have come to increasingly despise their opponents; Democrats and Republicans have developed more and more negative feelings towards one another, with cross-party feelings at an all-time low. What was once a mild distaste for opponents is now expressed as hatred. Partisans now say they’d be horrified if their child married a political opponent. In some cases partisans are willing to pay money not to even hear arguments made by people on the other side! That’s a whole lot of polarization. 

So we see a disconnect – people’s animosity for their political opponents has gone through the roof, but the policies they support can’t account for this division very well. For example, on issues from gun control to equal rights, a surprising proportion of Republicans and Democrats share common ground. To be sure, there are disagreements as well, but a majority on both sides support the same fundamentals on a lot of these issues. For example, most Democrats support the right to bear arms while most Republicans support better background checks and more constraints on assault weapons. This presents an interesting dilemma; how is it that liberals and conservatives are harboring so much hate for one another, when their views may not even be all that different? 

It’s possible that the cross-party contempt is fueled not so much by who their opponents are but by the far more monstrous spectre of who they imagine their opponents to be. For instance, what’s the first thing you think of when asked to picture your political opponent? If you lean left, are you picturing your opponent as a middle-of-the-road conservative, or an ignorant, belligerent white supremacist? If you lean right, are you envisioning your opponent as a moderate liberal, or a sanctimonious snowflake who’s ready to pounce on even the mildest political incorrectness? Chances are, whatever you’re imagining is not reflective of the vast majority of your opponents’ real opinions and behaviours. This gap between perceived and actual attitudes is called false polarization. Research in our lab shows that people’s wrong guesses about the other side are systematically skewed toward the outrageous. People’s estimates aren’t too far off when guessing how many liberals support health care, or how many conservatives like tax cuts. Where they REALLY get it wrong is their perceptions of their political opponents’ agreement with extreme and egregious attitudes. Liberals vastly overestimate the proportion of conservatives who openly support discrimination against immigrants, and conservatives way overestimate the proportion of liberals who want to ban any speaker who’s even remotely controversial from college campuses. However, there’s still the question of why this might be happening; what is leading to these overestimations of opposing partisans’ attitudes?

There are at least three source of misinformation that may help to explain where average people are getting ideas about how horrible their opponents are. Political elites, mainstream media, and social media all contribute to these misconceptions. Just Googling the words “Trump” and “Democrats” provides a whole host of examples where the POTUS described his opponents in divisive, less-than-civil ways.  At an Iowa rally in 2018, for instance, Trump called Democrats a “wacko mob”, claiming that they were “too dangerous to govern.” Of course, Hillary Clinton famously characterized Trump voters as a basket of deplorables, suggesting that contemptuous characterizations cut both ways. Sure, it’s easy to brush off these statements as political rhetoric, but some partisans – especially those who don’t personally know many people from the opponent party – may get their understanding of opponents from political leaders’ characterizations.  

The media – especially partisan media - plays a similar role; all too often, networks like leftwing MSNBC and rightwing FoxNews disproportionately highlight events and depictions that will stir up the most outrage – it’s a surefire tactic to attract attention and ensure viewers come back for more. Headlines like “Free Speech Under Siege!” or “’Make America White Again’: Hate Speech post-election,” give readers the impression that liberals stand for abolishing free speech, or that conservatives are all racist bigots. These headlines are often not entirely fabricated; they report on real fringe views of both sides, but views that are only held by a small minority of partisans. Disproportionate coverage of these minorities contribute to average people’s misperceptions that these views are commonplace. Social media platforms like Twitter are also fertile ground for spreading misperceptions. Research shows that moral and emotional language (often the stuff of outrage) is shared more widely within like-minded echo chambers than more measured language. Likewise, the most extreme (and often egregious) statements, typically made by a single individual or a vocal minority, may end up going viral. This amplifies the views of the most vile, and can give anyone encountering the post the impression that far more people agree with the statement than is actually the case.  

So we know that individuals have painted a pretty extreme picture of what their opponents believe, and that these caricatured conceptions are often informed by messaging from both the media and political elites. This animosity for the other side – called negative partisanship - can have serious side-effects. It’s not just about healthy competition between us vs them, like rooting for a sport team. The conviction that the other side is morally aberrant, dangerous, can inspire blind loyalty (accepting even the shoddiest ideas from within one’s party) and equally knee-jerk rejection of even opponents’ best ideas. This means political leaders can have an incentive to leverage this negative partisanship, perhaps especially when they have little of substance to offer voters. When people get entrenched in tribal warfare it can hinder their ability to unify even when doing so would be in everyone’s interests. The US inability to co-ordinate a response to COVID-19 – and Americans’ increasing disagreement about the virus and how to handle it -- may be at least in part a tragic result of increasingly divided information ecosystems where people get different views of reality, and increased distrust from any communicator not on their “team.” 

Alarmingly, our research reveals that when people find their opponents to be far more awful than they are in reality, it can serve as a justification to support anti-democratic tactics in order to win elections. If, in someone’s mind, it’s either “my party wins, or the party full of absolute monsters does”, it can allow partisans to justify unethical practices that, in any other situation, they’d consider unacceptable. All of this to say that the (mis)perception of an ever-widening divide between partisans and their opponents can have some pretty dire consequences. 

One take-away from this research is the conclusion that Americans’ conceptions of their opponents may be dramatically miscalibrated, so at least some of the polarization we see may be false polarization. A caution against false polarization, however, shouldn’t be mistaken for a disavowal of any polarization or a call for centrism and compromise. Sometimes parties will – and should – disagree sharply on policy issues. People shouldn’t excuse or minimize extreme and egregious views like bigotry and intolerance, even if it’s rare. However, to disagree effectively in a democracy, partisans need at least a passing acquaintance with accuracy. It’s important to identify where we actually differ, and where our differences are largely imagined. People shouldn’t be wasting energy tilting at windmills if it’s over views their opponents largely don’t hold.   Better to disagree with political opponents for what and who they are rather than who we imagine them to be – and to get a more calibrated, and correct, sense of the real problems and their magnitude. After all, it’s difficult to find a cure if you don’t have the right diagnosis. 


Wednesday, October 28, 2020 - 10:57