This study was born out of a conviction that political polarization and conflict are not intrinsically bad for democracy. This positive view of conflict is informed by Alia Braley’s (the lead author’s) experience in studying civil resistance movements, which often aim for major political change, like shifting from autocracy to democracy, using nonviolent methods and building broad and diverse coalitions in society. From that perspective, political conflict is, in fact, the only way for society to become more moral, just, and humane. It is a process of negotiating what we need to preserve and what we need to change.
But how can we tell when political polarization, for example in the US, is toxic versus an expression of an important conflict? While many studies show increased levels of dislike between partisan groups, it is not objectively clear how much dislike is normal and even natural in a society with diverse viewpoints. We decided to focus on one clear sign that polarization has become harmful to a society: when it starts to weaken democratic institutions. After all, the survival if not the improvement of democratic institutions provides the framework for the necessary conflicts in political life to be expressed with greater participation, representation, equity, and safety from political violence than any other political system we have yet to invent.
This led us to focus on what aspects of polarization threaten democracy, especially with many countries experiencing democratic backsliding, including the US. While studies and books such as How Democracies Die suggest that aspiring autocrats have driven this “third-wave of autocratization,” making incremental power grabs, the question on our minds was why do citizens who report high levels of support for democracy in the US and elsewhere allow these power grabs to go unpunished?
Our thought about how to solve this mystery was that partisans may allow their representatives to undermine democracy if they come to believe that the other side might do the same first. The situation resembles a prisoners’ dilemma game, where both sides might want democracy, but if they come to fear the other side will defect, it becomes their dominant strategy to defect as well.
This perspective on American politics likewise arose from the lead author’s previous research studying civil and interstate war. Although democracy is, by design, able to obviate the need for violent resolution of conflict in most cases, the threat perceptions between groups may operate in much the same way as they do between any other human groups. The fear of attack by the other side often leads to a logic of preemptive strike, a theory most clearly laid out in international relations in terms of the “security dilemma”. If such dynamics are playing out within democratic politics, the authors hypothesized that toxic polarization and democratic backsliding could be characterized by a sort of “subversion dilemma” where increasing tensions between partisan groups could lead to preemptive strikes on the institutions of democracy.
We hypothesized that citizens on both sides of the aisle in the US would likely over-estimate how much opposing partisans are willing to undermine democracy, and critically, that the larger the fear that opposing partisans will undermine democracy, the greater would be partisans’ own willingness to do the same (and to vote for politicians who would do so). In this way our work is situated in a larger literature that documents misperceptions between partisans as a facet of polarization. It has been found that partisans tend to overestimate how much the other side dislikes them, dehumanizes them, and how extreme the other side’s policy positions are.
In our first study, we find not only sizable and practically symmetrical misperceptions between everyday Democrats and Republicans about the willingness of the other side to undermine democracy, but that these misperceptions are orders of magnitude larger than other documented misperceptions. Further, we found that partisans are largely willing to undermine democracy to the extent that they hold these exaggerated misperceptions about the other side. This is true even after accounting for other usual suspects of democratic backsliding, such as partisan identity strength, extreme policy preferences, ethnic antagonisms, and partisan animosity.
The good news is that we can correct misperceptions. To do so, we created what is known as an “ask-tell” treatment in which we asked partisans a series of seven questions about the other side’s commitment to democracy, and gave them feedback based on our own survey research after each question. We found that, compared to the control condition that did not receive feedback about what the other side actually intends, those that received the feedback significantly reduced their belief that the other side is willing to undermine democracy. Most importantly, they also became less likely to report being willing to undermine democracy themselves, less likely to vote for anti-democratic candidates, and reported greater feelings of warmth towards the other side.
These findings were replicated in a mega study (N=32,059): Stanford University’s Strengthening Democracy Challenge. Among 252 interventions submitted and 25 finalists, our intervention ranked first in lowering anti-democratic attitudes and first in lowering an overall composite index of all eight outcomes including measures such as desire for distance from out-partisans and biased evaluation of political facts.
Critically, these results hold for participants across the political spectrum in the US. So, if we want more Republicans to hold representatives like Trump accountable for his anti-democratic actions, then it will be important to lower the fears that Republicans have about Democrats are seeking to undermine democracy.
It is no mystery where these fears among Republicans likely come from, as Trump has made relentless claims that Democrats are trying to steal elections since the start of his first campaign back in 2016. In this way he has positioned himself in front of his supporters as the candidate out to “save democracy”. As unfounded as these accusations might be, our study suggests that does not absolve Democrats and concerned Republicans from the need to counter these messages of fear with reassurance in both Democrats’ intentions and the safety of US elections. This may require a concerted messaging campaign and credible demonstrations of this commitment, such as third-party guarantees or costly signals of good faith.
Democrats, we have found, are sometimes initially hostile to this solution. It makes no sense, they react, to reassure Republicans about Democrats’ commitment to democracy, when Republicans are the ones transgressing. We even had a participant in one of our studies complain to the IRB that we were spreading Republican propaganda by showing that everyday Republicans are more committed to democratic norms than Democrats tend to think. What Democrats need to understand, however, is that Republicans have been convinced that it’s Democrats who support undermining democracy, and our studies suggest that Republicans are eager to learn otherwise.
Reducing fear between Democrats and Republicans on issues of democracy may be prove to be a crucial part of any long-term strategy to shore-up democracy in the United States.