Zoom in / The risk of violence has become a backdrop for protests and elections in the US.

It’s no secret that the US suffers from a diminished commitment to one of its founding principles: democratic representation. Gerrymandering, political violence, and baseless allegations of voter fraud are regularly in the news, and the widespread support for them raises questions about why so much of the population has suddenly turned against democratic ideas.

One of the simplest potential explanations is that this is a product of partisanship turned ugly. Instead of thinking of political opponents simply as wrong, a growing portion of the US public views their political opposites as a threat that must be neutralized. If your opponents are a danger to society, how could you accept them winning an election?

If this is a primary driver, then lowering the partisan temperature should help. And conveniently, social scientists have developed interventions that do just that. But now a team of researchers has tested this and found it doesn’t work. You can make people feel more comfortable with their partisan opposites and they will still want to suppress their voices – possibly violently.

Missed links

The team behind the new work, from a collection of American universities, acknowledges that there is a bit of a disconnect in much of the current literature on partisan polarization. The dominant idea is that thinking less of your opponents—seeing them as a threat or morally or ethically challenged—is a prerequisite to doing anything to keep them out of power. And for many, this “everything” includes violating democratic ideals by suppressing voices or resorting to violence.

According to this view, getting people to view their opponents in a better light should restore willingness to allow those opponents to participate fully in the political process. And we now have techniques that several studies have shown help mitigate the appearance of partisanship.

While these techniques restore better perceptions of political opponents, no one has tested whether they improve people’s perceptions of democracy. So they set out to do that.

To determine partisan hostility, they relied on two simple tests. One is dictator game, 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 someone else’s holdings. Committed partisans 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 is measured by several questions. Examples include support for closing polling stations in areas where political opponents live, support for counterfeiting where it is technically illegal, and justification for the use of violence to achieve political ends.

As for interventions to change this dynamic, researchers have tested a number. One focuses on reminding people of friendships that cross party lines. Another corrects some of the exaggerated stereotypes about members of the opposing party. And another describes the friendships between major figures in both parties, such as Joe Biden and John McCain.


Previous articleGravitational waves could reveal the existence of quark matter
Next articleAvoiding a haunted hotel stay and why we need a travel app for that