It’s no secret that the US suffers from a diminished commitment to one of its core principles: democratic representation. Gerrymandering, political violence and unfounded allegations of electoral fraud are regularly in the news, and the widespread support for them begs the question of why so much of the population has suddenly turned against democratic ideas.
One of the simplest possible explanations is that it is a product of partisanship turned ugly. Rather than simply viewing political opponents as wrong, a growing segment of the US public views their political opponents as a threat that needs to be neutralized. If your opponents are a danger to society, how can you accept them winning elections?
If that’s a major driver, then it should help lower partisan temperature. And, conveniently, social scientists have developed interventions that do just that. But now a team of researchers have tested this and found it doesn’t work. You can make it easier for people to get to grips with their partisan differences, and they will still want to suppress their voice – possibly by force.
The team behind the new work, drawn from a collection of US universities, recognized that there is some discrepancy in much of the current literature on partisan polarization. The prevailing idea was that thinking less of one’s opponents – seeing them as a threat or being challenged morally or ethically – is a prerequisite to doing whatever is necessary to keep them from power. And for many, this “everything” involves violating democratic ideals by suppressing votes or using force.
From this perspective, a willingness to get people to see their opponents in a better light should restore a willingness to allow those opponents to participate fully in the political process. And we already have techniques that several studies have shown help mitigate the kind of biased dislike.
While these techniques restore a better view of political opponents, no one has tested whether they improve people’s view of democracy. So they set about it.
To determine partisan hostility, they relied on two simple tests. One is the dictator game, where participants chose how much money they wanted to share with a fellow player. The other was a “joy in destruction“game in which participants could pay to reduce someone else’s holdings. Dedicated partisans would be more expected to reduce the holdings of players who support their political opposition. Participants were also simply asked how they felt about political opponents think.
Support for democratic principles was measured using a number of questions. Examples included support for the closure of polling stations in areas where political opponents lived, support for gerrymandering where it was technically illegal, and seeking justifications for the use of force to achieve political ends.
As for interventions to change this dynamic, the researchers tested a range. One focused on reminding people of friendships that cross party lines. Another corrected some of the exaggerated stereotypes about members of the opposite party. And yet another described friendships between important figures in the two parties, such as Joe Biden and John McCain.
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