Cooper: How politics get worse

Cooper: How politics get worse

June 26th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California pass each other while attending the 38th annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol in May.

Photo by Evan Vucci

A new survey confirms what we have long believed — that the average American is not out on the politics fringes of either major political party.

However, the More in Common project, together with global research firm YouGov, does show that Democrats and Republicans have deeply distorted understandings of each other on the day's most controversial issues.

For instance, Democrats are far less likely to support open borders, far more likely to support private ownership of firearms and far more friendly to police than Republicans believe they are. And Republicans support controlled immigration far more than Democrats believe they do, and an overwhelming majority believe racism and sexism still exist in the United States.

Sadly, the survey found that "politically disengaged" Americans (26%) are "fully three times more accurate in their estimates of political opponents" than those on the fringes of both parties (8% progressive activists and 6% devoted conservatives).

Although we have longed believed voters should be informed before they vote, the survey shows that the more news that people consume, the larger their perception gap of the other side. People who say they consume news "most of the time" are nearly three times more distorted in their perceptions than those who consume news "only now and then."

The perception gap survey diverges, though, when it comes to education. For Democrats, the perception gap about Republican views gets worse with every academic degree they earn. For Republicans, the perception gap about Democrats' views does not widen with higher levels of education.

This could account for the serious disconnect between political reality and what those in higher education believe — and teach — is political reality.

The gap is so wide that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate about what Republicans actually think than those with a postgraduate degree.

The survey suggests the gap may exist because Democrats have fewer Republican friends. Indeed, the more education Democrats have, the more likely they are to say "most of my friends" share their political beliefs. And since they have more education, the higher the perception gap they have. For Republicans, the more education they have, the less — though slightly — they are to say "almost all" of their friends hold the same political views.

The omnipresence of social media, according to the survey, has not helped keep Americans better informed, either, even if, in theory, it should present a cross-section of one's community's political views.

While only 26% of Americans say they share social media posts about politics, the survey shows those who do have a higher perception gap (29%) about the other political side than those who don't share political posts (18%).

"The political content we see on social media," the survey report says, "is therefore disproportionately from people with a more distorted understanding of the other side, further adding to the problem."

Just as with everything else in life, the more we misperceive about someone, they more we dislike them. And, as the survey points out, the larger the perception gap, the more likely we are to describe those on the other side as "hateful," "ignorant" and "bigoted."

Neither party gets a pass on such feelings, with Democrats only slightly more than Republicans describing those on the other side with hateful terms. On the positive side, Republicans perceive Democrats to be more caring than Democrats perceive Republicans to be, and Democrats perceive Republicans to be more honest and more responsible than Republicans perceive Democrats to be.

This survey, more than anything we have seen in recent years, paints a picture of how the polarization in America thrives and continues to build.

Division is good business, especially when the news can be parsed through ideological political channels and through social media. Such consumption feeds incorrect ideological misperceptions, which build hate for the person on the other side and the incessant need to come out on top, even if it means engaging in less than morally upright behavior.

Where the survey says Democrats and Republicans believe 55 percent of Americans hold extreme views, only 30 percent actually do. And since three-quarters of us believe our differences are not so great that we cannot come together, we have a lot of room for growth.

We wouldn't deign to believe being wary of what and how widely we read on politics and choosing a less ideological group of friends is going to change the world, but it could make each of us cognizant of our actions and how they might contribute to making the country less polarized. It's worth a shot.

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