Actions that reduce party vigor do not help democracy
It’s no secret that the US suffers from a diminished commitment to one of its founding principles: democratic representation. Gerrymandering, political violence, and unsubstantiated allegations of election fraud are regularly in the news, and the widespread support for them raises questions about why such a large portion of the population has suddenly turned against democratic ideas.
One of the simplest potential explanations is the product of partisanship gone ugly. Instead of seeing political opponents as simply wrong, a growing portion of the US public views their political opposites as a threat that needs to be neutralized. If your opponents are a danger to society, how can you accept their election victory?
If this is the main factor, then lowering the partisan temperature should help. And, conveniently, sociologists have developed measures that do just that. But now a team of researchers has tested it and found that it doesn’t work. You can make people more comfortable with their partisan opposites, and they’ll still want to suppress their vote — perhaps with violence.
The team behind the new paper from the American University Collection acknowledged that there is a gap in the vast body of current literature on partisan polarization. The dominant idea was that thinking less of one’s opponents—seeing them as a threat or as morally or ethically reprehensible—is a prerequisite for doing whatever it takes to keep them out of power. And for many, that “anything goes” includes violating democratic ideals by suppressing the vote or using violence.
According to this view, getting people to view 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 methods that, according to several studies, help mitigate partisan aversion.
Although these methods restore better perceptions of political opponents, no one has tested whether they improve people’s perceptions of democracy. So they set about it.
To define partisan hostility, they relied on two simple tests. One of them a game about a dictator, where participants chose how much money to share with another player. The other was “the joy of destruction“a game in which participants could pay to reduce the holdings of someone else. Loyal supporters were expected to be more likely to reduce the holdings of any players who supported their political opposition. Participants were also simply asked how they felt about political opponents.
Support for democratic principles was measured through several questions. Examples included supporting the closing of polling stations in areas where political opponents live, supporting fraud where it was technically illegal, and justifying the use of violence to achieve political goals.
As for interventions to change this dynamic, researchers have tested a number of. One focused on reminding people of friendships that cross partisan lines. Another corrected some exaggerated stereotypes about members of the opposite party. And another described the friendship between major figures in the two parties, such as Joe Biden and John McCain.