Extremists Exaggerate Polarization

Why have American politics become so polarized? Maybe they haven’t – maybe it’s just you? New research reveals that partisans, especially those on the extremes, overestimate the amount of polarization that actually exists. The phenomenon, called polarization projection, helps us to understand how it is that people on both ends of the political spectrum mistakenly assume that there is a much wider gap between the two sides than there actually is. Making the problem worse, people at the political extremes – those who have exaggerated views of how polarized the country is – are also the ones who are most politically active. This can end up translating extreme partisans’ mistaken views into the election of politicians who are more extreme than the people they represent, particularly in the context of intra-party primaries (Nate Silver recently documented this effect among Senate Republicans).

When the gap between the two parties appears to be enormous, compromise becomes difficult. We become less likely to see our political adversaries as having the same basic goals as us (like improving the country and the lives of its citizens) while having different opinions of how to achieve those goals. Instead, they become the enemy. And compromising with the enemy is not pragmatic, it’s disloyal.

Just ask Richard Mourdock who recently ousted six-term Republican senator Dick Lugar in the Indiana GOP primary. He told Brian Howey of the Evansville Courier and Press:

“I recognize there are times when our country is incredibly polarized in that political sense. Right now is one of those times. The leadership of the Republican Party and the leadership of the Democratic Party are not going to be able to reach compromise on big issues because they are so far apart in principle. My idea of bipartisanship going forward is to make sure that we have such a Republican majority in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and in the White House, that if there's going to be bipartisanship, it's going to be Democrats coming our way, instead of them trying to pull Republicans their way.”

Dick Lugar’s biggest sin, it seems, is that he was occasionally willing to side with Obama and the Democrats. He worked with then-Senator Obama on a bill that to secure nuclear material abroad, and voted to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. As Obama himself said in a statement released after Lugar’s defeat, “While Dick and I didn't always agree on everything, I found during my time in the Senate that he was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done.” A willingness to compromise meant the end of Senator Lugar, or, as Tea Partiers in Indiana liked to refer to him, “Obama’s favorite Republican.” Another moderate Republican Senator, Maine’s  Olympia Snowe, also decided not to seek re-election, saying that she does “not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term.”

But let’s get back to the research – what’s the evidence that suggests that it’s the extremists that overestimate the amount of political polarization? In an upcoming article (PDF) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Leaf van Boven and Charles Judd of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and David Sherman of the University of California, Santa Barbara describe four studies, including a nationally representative survey of Americans done in the months prior to the 2008 election. In the nationwide survey, they asked 1,000 Americans of voting age which candidate they supported (John McCain or Barack Obama) and how strong their support was. They also asked them to estimate how other Americans’ views looked – what proportion of Americans did they think supported each candidate and how strongly? What they found was that the more extreme people were in their support for John McCain, the more extreme they assumed that Barack Obama’s supporters probably were, and vice versa. They also found that the more polarization people believed existed, the more likely they were to say they intended to vote. So it was the people who believed most strongly in their own side’s candidate who projected their extremity onto the other side.

The same pattern also showed up in more carefully controlled laboratory studies that investigated how this pattern of polarization projection actually occurs. While past research had shown that people have a tendency to project what they think onto others, the current results suggest that people project how they think as well.

What this suggests is that if you’re someone like Dick Lugar – principled, but with a willingness to compromise to get things done – then you may expect others will bring a similar approach to the negotiating table and you may be able to work out a deal. But if you’re someone like Richard Mourdock, then you may see things very differently – if I stand for my positions based on immovable convictions, then probably my opponents do too. If that’s the case, then what’s the point of trying to find some middle ground? The only problem is, it turns out that is not the case among most Americans.  As Leaf Van Boven, the study’s lead author explains:

“[M]ost people overestimate American political polarization. People estimated the difference between Democrats and Republicans to be about twice as large as it really is. In fact, every year since 1970, people have overestimated the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans on every issue that was measured. These data clearly show that people overestimate American political polarization. And this overestimation is largest among strong partisans with extreme attitudes.”

In the end, what we’re left with is more partisanship in Washington than in the rest of the country. There’s a case to be made that there may currently be more blame to be laid at the feet of the Republicans than the Democrats – in their new book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein refer to it as asymmetric polarization – but the important fact remains that a large part of the apparent polarization isn’t real. People across the country are actually much closer on the issues themselves than it sometimes appears.