How Extreme Political Division Cripples a Democracy and What To Do About It

Suzette Brooks Masters
July 31, 2020

Entrenched polarization, i.e., extreme political division, is a fixture of public discourse and attitudes in America today. When the pandemic surfaced in March, many wondered whether it would foster greater solidarity across traditional fault lines and divides (e.g., red/blue, rural/urban, rich/poor U.S. born/immigrant), exacerbate existing divisions, or create new ones.

More In Common has been tracking and analyzing public attitudes on polarization for some time.  It has just released new data based on surveys of 2,070 individuals conducted in late June 2020 to assess whether the pandemic had increased or decreased polarization. 

The short answer is that, initially, the pandemic did promote a greater sense of solidarity and shared fate among Americans, but those gains disappeared quickly and it now appears that COVID did not usher in a new era of unity and cohesion in the U.S. 

Specifically, after a reduction in perceived divisions noted in survey data from April 2020, attitudes returned to their pre COVID levels by late June 2020, with 64% of people feeling more divided as a result of COVID. Further, people are pessimistic about the future, with 89% of individuals surveyed saying the U.S. will become further divided because of COVID.   

In the U.S., where the pandemic continues to spread and deaths and case counts are among the world’s highest, there is deep disappointment in the national response to COVID, with survey participants expressing low levels of national pride, hope, and sense of belonging.  However, twice as many people felt pride, hope, and belonging at the local or community level, representing a strong majority. This suggests that leadership matters, and that national and local leadership are being differentiated.

In light of the public’s pessimism about COVID bringing about greater solidarity, is there any reason to hope that bridging sharp divides in America is possible?

Actually, there is. Two important reports reveal that our perceptions of how deep our divides are far exceed our actual divisions.

In its recent research report, America's Divided Mind, Beyond Conflict analyzes the intense polarization in the U.S., specifically along partisan lines.

One of its key findings is that perception of polarization exceeds reality by a factor of 2 to 1.  That means that members of one political party believe that members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them twice as much as they actually do. This distortion has implications for how much people from different parties choose to come into contact with one another, engage in othering behavior, and perpetuate self-segregation.

Americans also exaggerate the extent of partisan disagreement on policy issues. While very real disagreements over policy exist, the perception of those disagreements again outpaces actual disagreements. For example, on immigration, the perceived partisan divides suggest there is no overlap in positions whereas, in fact, there is plenty of room for constructive debate between the extremes, for reform and for progress.

This pattern of findings suggests that we live in an environment that primes people to be binary, zero-sum, and protective of their own in-group, and to attribute more extreme behaviors and attitudes to those they perceive as being on the opposing team.   

The bad news is that the pull towards the poles exacerbates divisions and makes it harder to work across divides. The good news is that if we can get people from different camps to talk to one another, we may be able to get them to realize that they share much more than they expected.

Beyond Conflict’s research findings echo those of More in Common’s Perception Gap report from 2019. That research identified an important source of polarization in America:  the false beliefs people have of their partisan opponents. It quantifies the ‘perception gap’ among Americans of different political persuasions and degrees of activism and finds that those who are most avid followers of political news tend to have distorted views of their supposed political opponents’ viewpoints. This vicious cycle of attribution of bad intent makes it harder to work across the aisle and find common ground.

And therein lies the challenge – how to create the conditions that enable people who perceive one another to be in different camps to engage in open and honest conversations and find what they share in common, when our social media, media, and political environments are pulling people away from one another.

Why does this matter?

The inaccurate perception we hold about the other political side amplifies conflict and animus and hardens divides. This fuels polarization and zero-sum thinking by activating a sense of threat and in-group solidarity rather than creating the incentives to bridge divides and cooperate to strengthen our democracy and solve problems together. When our thoughts and behaviors are predetermined by our political identity and we are programmed to oppose anything the other side believes, our democratic norms, institutions and practices don’t function well.

In the extreme, polarization can even foster undemocratic “ends justify the means” behaviors and alienate the majority of Americans who are exhausted and demotivated by all the fighting. Thus, unaddressed, extreme polarization can cripple a democracy, leaving millions sitting on the sidelines while fighting continues on the extremes.

More in Common and Beyond Conflict agree that to break this polarization cycle, it’s necessary to engage directly with those who hold different views and fight the gravitational pull of an ecosystem (traditional and social media, the “political industrial complex”) that profits from polarization, outrage and division.  That means educating Americans about the values they share and the solutions that are possible contrary to what they might have expected. And it means investing in ways to promote bridging behaviors at scale to neutralize zero-sum thinking.

Photo by Mike Andrews