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(Mis)perceiving Political Polarization

The average American thinks Republican and Democratic voters are farther apart than they really are—and that's doesn't bode well.
(Photo: Jim Larkin/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jim Larkin/Shutterstock)

A lot has been written about how polarized politics is these days. The Pew Research Center describes this rift as "the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats," while the Brookings Institute writes that "political polarization has become embedded in American society with results that are damaging to the political process." A decade ago, prominent political scientist Morris Fiorina found that average voters remained fairly moderate despite claims of a culture war, but since that time voters have drifted farther from the middle, perhaps because of a growing divide between the rich and poor.

In the midst of all this discussion, however, one question seems to have been lost: Do ordinary people think the country is polarized? In particular, do Americans think the general public—of which they're a part—is more polarized than it really is? According to political scientists Matt Levendusky and Neil Malhotra, the answer is yes.

"There's actually less distance between ordinary voters than most people think."

Levendusky and Malhotra began their study of polarization with a survey of 510 people nationwide who'd been selected at random. Each person reported where they stood on a seven-point, liberal-to-conservative scale, and how strongly they identified with either of the two major political parties. Next, the researchers asked survey participants where they thought typical Democrats and Republicans—not political elites, but regular people who happened to support those parties—stood on issues likes capital gains taxes and immigration.

As one might expect, self-identified Democrats placed themselves a bit left of center and Republicans a bit right of center—at around 3.4 and 4.5 points, respectively, on the seven-point scale. But asked where the typical Democrat or Republican sat on the scale, the numbers came out differently. On average, people thought typical Democrats would fall around 2.9 points, and Republicans around 5.1 points—roughly twice as far from the center as those same Democrats and Republicans placed themselves.

Most of that "false polarization," as Levendusky and Malhotra call it, stemmed from Republicans and Democrats' incorrect beliefs about each other. Democrats, for example, thought their peers in the party were just a bit left of where they actually stood. But those same Democrats thought typical Republicans were nearly a point to the right of where members of that party had placed themselves. Republicans similarly perceived Democrats as much more liberal than they really were, but were relatively accurate in their beliefs about fellow Republicans.

The results may help "point the way toward ways to mitigate polarization," Levendusky writes in an email, such as changes in the way the media covers politics. "It also should make things like compromise and consensus easier: There's actually less distance between ordinary voters (if not elites) than most people think."


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