HomeLearning CenterResearchers try to find ways to turn down America’s political temperature

Researchers try to find ways to turn down America’s political temperature

The nation’s partisan divide has become more drastic in recent years and more people have hostile attitudes toward members of the opposite party.

Two bitter presidential elections, the expanding reach of the internet on social media in politics, and hardening partisanship among the nation’s elected officials have escalated America’s issues with polarization in recent decades.

A large group of academics and researchers took notice of the issue and performed a study on how to improve on America’s polarization problem. The “Strengthening Democracy Challenge” took submissions from 250 researchers, activists and practitioners around the world aimed at finding interventions to reduce anti-democratic attitudes, partisan animosity and support for political violence.

Stanford’s Polarization and Social Change Lab worked with scholars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania to test 25 methods in a pool involving 31,000 Americans.

“Levels of polarization have reached record highs. Both Democrats and Republicans express extremely high levels of animosity towards their rival partisans,” said Robb Willer, professor of sociology and director of the Polarization and Social Change Lab. “There are also concerning levels of anti-democratic attitudes in the American mass public, both Democrats and Republicans report being willing to vote for candidates who would even if those candidates broke longstanding norms and laws we associate with democratic practices if the voters thought that it would serve their partisan interests.”

“This is a really dangerous situation, a recipe for potential further democratic backsliding, and that motive motivated us to do this project, which is a very large-scale effort to identify effective ways to intervene on this problem.”

A Pew survey of over 6,000 people released earlier this month found negativity toward the other side of the aisle is up on both sides regardless of what voters were asked about. A majority in each party described the other as dishonest, immoral and close-minded. All metrics of negativity were up since 2016, when the election between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton highlighted the nation’s bitter divide.

A key piece of the issue determined in the study was how much partisans believe the other side of the aisle supports anti-democratic values or political violence. When presented with evidence that voters have low support for political violence, voters in both parties were more likely to have a more favorable outlook of the opposing side, reduced anti-democratic attitudes and less support for political violence.

“(People have) massive, wild overestimates. Levels of support for political violence are definitely concerning in the general public, I want that to be zero, but people are way off. They’re really, really overestimating,” Willer said. “If you then just give people accurate information to correct their perception of the other side, they adjust their perception, but then they also adjust their own levels of support for anti-democratic attitudes, support for political violence, because some of that is coming from them reacting to what they think the other side is supporting.”

Inaccurate stereotypes of people based on their political beliefs has been a main driver of the political divide. Experts have found multiple factors contribute to the inaccurate portrayal of the other side of the aisle like social media thought bubbles, the continued sorting of people into politically homogenous zones of the country and less crossover in political beliefs within friend groups.


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