Discover more from Defusing American Anger: A depolarization endeavor
Does reducing affective polarization reduce support for undemocratic behaviors and political violence?
Does it all come down to our distorted views of each other? Should working on that be our main focus?
Does reducing affective polarization (which I also call us-vs-them polarization) lead to a reduction in support for undemocratic behaviors and political violence? My own personal take on this is: yes, this is all about affective polarization. I think that the root cause for supporting the more dangerous and irresponsible behaviors is us-vs-them contempt and fear: I think that reducing that will result in a lowering of all the other things that pose threats to stable, functioning democracies.
That’s my instinct and belief, but I can’t prove it. And I’ve been a bit confused in that area, because I’ve seen various mixed messages and differing opinions from some knowledgable people. I sometimes see academics who claim that there’s not shown to be much link between affective polarization and support for undemocratic behaviors. For example, a recent Carnegie Endowment piece by Rachel Kleinfeld said the following:
They found that social distrust, partisan animosity, and biased evaluation of politicized facts (all hallmarks of affective polarization) did group together. But these factors were not correlated closely with support for undemocratic practices, political violence, and undemocratic candidates, and interventions that affected the first set of variables that characterize affective polarization did not necessarily affect the second set of variables, which were what researchers ultimately wanted to change.
This point is sometimes used by people who want to denigrate depolarization efforts (see some examples of those views in my piece on “polarization is not the problem” stances). To some people, the problem isn’t our distorted perceptions of each other, but that a large number of “bad guys” simply want to do bad things. People with that view of the nature of our divides are understandably skeptical that correcting our distorted perceptions of each other will do much.
On the other hand, I’ve seen some academics who talk as if all these things are all connected. For example, the video below (YouTube link) was recently named “one of the most effective tools to reduce support for political violence, anti-democratic attitudes, and animosity across partisan lines.” It’s a video aimed at reducing our overly pessimistic views of each other, and they are claiming it was also useful for reducing support for antidemocratic attitudes and political violence. (And by the way, if you think depolarization is an important goal, please share that video! And consider sharing it more than once!)
This seems an important question. Many people are scared of the support for undemocratic, authoritarian behaviors that they see from people on the “other side.” If we can help reduce such things by bringing down us-vs-them animosity and contempt, then that’s a great argument for investing a lot of resources and effort into that work.
I reached out to Jan Voelkel, a polarization researcher at Stanford who worked on the video above (read more about that work), and asked him about this.
Jan sent me the following thoughts:
I agree it is confusing. My understanding is that:
Many researchers/practitioners have assumed that affective polarization is a reason why people support undemocratic practices/candidates from their own elites.
A couple of empirical tests have shown that reducing affective polarization does not necessarily mean that anti-democratic attitudes are reduced (Broockman et al., 2023; Voelkel et al., 2023). The Strengthening Democracy Challenge has more nuanced findings in that we have found that a large reduction in affective polarization is associated with a small reduction in support for undemocratic candidates.
The results from the SDC and others (Braley et al., 2023) have shown that thoughts about the other side are a cause of anti-democratic attitudes. So, even if it is not animosity, some kind of partisan us-vs-them thinking seems to be important.
Survey experimental tests also have general important limitations for drawing strong conclusions. So, it might be that researchers just have not figured out how animosity is causing anti-democratic tendencies.
Those were Jan’s comments.
So, my takeaway is that, my own instinct/belief that affective polarization plays a big role in these things has decent support: at the very least we can say they seem to have some type of link.
As is not surprising, these things can be hard to get to the bottom of. One thing that stands out to me in this area is that extreme affective dislike of the “other side” can lead to deeply embedded desires for specific policies/approaches, and this would mean that it would take quite a bit of unwinding and reduction of that dislike before you’d see a meaningful shift in how people vote or who they’d support, things like this. And also, for the longer term studies, when someone goes back out into the real world, they are back in the polarizing, angering environment, which means it’s hard to get much data about what, for example, several days of us-vs-them animosity reduction would result in. In short, there are a number of reasons it makes sense it’d be hard to get a good handle on what’s going on.
But the point I come back to on this, and why I see (affective) depolarization work as so important: we don’t know of other things that work. We at least know that reducing us-vs-them animosity won’t be wasted effort. We know that many people have these distorted views. So my take is: what else do we have to work on in this area? It’s not like we know of approaches that will result in a big reduction in support for undemocratic behaviors or political violence. But we do know there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of correcting our distorted perceptions of each other. So, unless someone’s got a better idea, I see it as evident that we should work on that.
What I often see in this area is pessimism: “it won’t work,” or “the bad guys are just bad and won’t change and you’re being naive for thinking you can change them”, things like this. And I don’t understand that attitude, as we’ve barely begun to work on these kinds of efforts. Large-scale depolarization-aimed work and political conflict resolution work is in its infancy: it is scarcely worked on. And, when it is worked on, it is largely in academic settings that don’t get much attention from mainstream journalists and outlets, or from politicians. There is so much low-hanging fruit here. And we can do a lot just by trying to get the word out there about these ideas, and this work (for example, sharing videos like this one).
It might also be helpful to point out that, in keeping with our distorted views of each other, it seems that many people overestimate how many people support antidemocratic behaviors. Recent research has shown widespread support for democratic principles, and low support for political violence. That is good to emphasize because there can be some overly pessimistic views in this area (e.g., liberals perceiving a large number of Republicans as desiring undemocratic, authoritarian governance).
Another question I’m curious about: what survey responses are being viewed by researchers as expressing support for “undemocratic behaviors” and “political violence”? I’d like to look more into the specific questions asked, which I haven’t yet done. Sometimes there can be debates about what survey responses mean, and whether there might be different interpretations of the data.