There’s no way around it: we’re pretty politically polarized. 91 percent of Americans told a polling firm last year that they believe the country is divided over politics — that tops the number who said we are divided by race and ethnicity (83 percent) and religion (77 percent).
But we don’t want to be so divided. One survey from December 2019 found that 92 percent of Americans said it was important to reduce the amount of divisiveness in our country.
That can seem like a Herculean task. It’s easy to imagine that we simply differ on too much to work together on our common problems.
But what if many of us are overestimating how different we are from people on the other side?
That’s one implication of a new paper presented at the American Political Science Association conference this year. Five researchers examined how “affective polarization”— the “tendency of ordinary partisans to dislike and distrust those from the other party”— is impacted by our perceptions of people on the side of the political divide.
First, they conducted a series of surveys and found that Americans dramatically over-estimate both the ideological extremism and political engagement (how often they talk about politics) of the other side. It’s like we’re looking past each other.
The researchers then examined how these misperceptions can impact affective polarization, which is here gauged by a series of measures, including feeling thermometers (how warm they feel about someone) and questions that gauged how they interact with people socially (which include asking people how comfortable they would be having a friend or neighbor from the other party).
What they found is that when people were presented with a more accurate picture of the typical person in the other party — who is more ideologically moderate and more indifferent to politics than they may imagine — affective polarization plummets.
In other words, we may be more polarized by our stereotypes about the other side than what the other side is actually like.
“People are still affectively polarized because they carry around those misperceptions,” Northwestern University political scientist James Druckman, one of the researchers who carried out the study, told us in an e-mail. “But if journalists, communicators, and others (e.g., schools) could give more accurate depictions of the modal partisan, then animus may decline which could be good for politics and social relationships.”
University of Pennsylvania political scientist Matthew Levendusky, another researcher who worked on the study, also emphasized the role of social media in distorting our views of people on the other side.
“I’d say think about the kind of person you see discussing politics on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. While most Americans don’t discuss politics online (they use those platforms to connect with friends and family), most people encounter political discussion online,” he noted in an interview. “So people generalize from [these] discussions — as well as from more general media coverage — to assume that those sorts of people are representative of the other party, but instead, they are not.”
If you’re interested in meeting more people on the other side who don’t fit the stereotypes you may have in mind, check out the following resources:
- Braver Angels: Founded in December 2016, Braver Angels works to bring Democrats and Republicans together for dialogue. The organization also hosts constructive debates about controversial topics, demonstrating how we can disagree without being disagreeable.
- The People’s Supper: The People’s Supper was also launched shortly after the 2016 election. It works to bring people together across political and social lines to break bread and forge real connections.
- All Sides: This website works to help you escape your filter bubbles. It features the day’s biggest stories, directing you towards coverage from multiple perspectives – left, right, and center.