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The US is less polarized than you might think

On the other hand, the problem is worsening quickly.

A Biden supporter (left) and a Trump supporter (right) shook hands during a protest in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 7, 2020.
A Biden supporter (left) and a Trump supporter (right) shook hands during a protest in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 7, 2020.SERGIO FLORES/AFP via Getty Images

In case you hadn’t noticed, America has a polarization problem. Over the last half-century, there has been a roughly 35 percentage point increase in the number of Americans who say they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the other political party. When asked in an experiment to award a college scholarship to otherwise similar high school applicants, nearly 80 percent of Democrats and Republicans picked the applicant who shared their partisan affiliation — and they preferred the co-partisan even when they had worse grades. Majorities in both parties now consider the other party “a serious threat to the United States and its people.”

But while the United States may seem especially polarized, new research suggests that it may not be such an outlier. In a new book, the political scientists Noam Gidron, James Adams, and Will Horne compare levels of “affective polarization” — a measure of partisans’ resentment of their political opponents — in the United States and 19 other Western democracies. They find that the United States is “not unusual in the degree to which partisans . . . dislike their opponents.” In fact, polarization here is significantly less intense than it is in Southern Europe — Spain, Greece, and Portugal are the most polarized countries — and similar to the levels in countries like Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, and Switzerland. (The least polarized countries are Finland and the Netherlands.) Other research, meanwhile, also finds that in central and southern Europe, partisan resentment is substantially higher than it is in the United States.

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So much for the good news. The bad news, according to Gidron, Adams, and Horne, is that since the mid-1990s polarization has increased more rapidly in the United States than in other Western democracies. More generally, they conclude that partisan animosity tends to be more intense under conditions that now apply to the United States, such as “when unemployment and inequality are high; when political elites clash over cultural issues such as immigration and national identity; and in countries with majoritarian electoral institutions.” Those are institutions in which parties do not share power the way they do in some low-animosity countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway.

Even if polarization has not yet risen to the level seen in some other countries, it has still poisoned American political culture, eroded trust in government, and driven a surge in skepticism toward democratic norms and institutions. According to recent research by Matthew H. Graham of George Washington University and Milan W. Svolik of Yale University, only about 3.5 percent of voters would abandon a candidate whom they otherwise supported if the candidate did something destructive to democratic norms. Highly partisan voters are especially unlikely to prioritize democratic values when selecting candidates.

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But the problem is not intractable. A growing body of research suggests ways to reduce polarization. In their forthcoming book, for example, political scientists Matthew Levendusky and Dominik Stecula report on having brought together more than 500 Republicans and Democrats. They found that in-person cross-party conversations of 15 minutes dramatically reduced partisan hostility compared with conversations in which people only talked to others from their own party. These short conversations had effects that endured at least one week later. Participants reported being surprised at how much they enjoyed the conversations and at how much common ground they were able to find.

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Reducing misperceptions can also help. For example, Americans think that a third of Democrats are LGBT (the real figure is roughly 6 percent) and that 38 percent of Republicans earn more than $250,000 (the real figure is roughly 2 percent). When researchers provided accurate information about the actual demographics, partisans came to feel closer to the other party. Other experimental evidence, meanwhile, suggests that reminding Americans of a common national identity leads them to like the opposing party more. Americans reported less animus toward the other party during the 2008 Summer Olympics and after the killing of Osama bin Laden, and they tend to report warmer feelings toward the other party around the July 4th holiday.

President Biden has declared that he wants to end “the grim era of demonization in America.” Now would be as good a time as any to try.

Bryan Schonfeld and Sam Winter-Levy are PhD candidates in politics at Princeton University.