As polarization reaches a fever pitch — and as Americans face the start of a new presidential election cycle — scholars are investigating how divisive political beliefs may erode respect for democratic norms. They also are looking for effective means to improve political discourse.
Their work is getting a lot of attention, including by the social science journal Nature, which recently featured the work of Dartmouth College political scientist Sean Westwood and University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill social psychologist Kurt Gray.
Westwood has found that between one and seven percent of Americans would resort to violence to address political differences. While those numbers may not seem high, Westwood told Nature he is “deeply troubled” — especially since people have allowed their political beliefs to influence non-political decisions like hiring practices.
With Yph Lelkes and Shanto Iyengar, Westwood leads the Polarization Research Lab (PRL), a joint project between Dartmouth, Stanford University, and the University of Pennsylvania, that is studying affective polarization and the state of Americans’ political discourse.
The New York Times’ Thomas B. Edsall also talked to Westwood. Westwood told Edsall fixing “antidemocratic attitudes by changing levels of partisan animosity sounds promising, but it is like trying to heal a broken bone in a gangrenous leg when the real problem is the car accident that caused both injuries.”
Instead, scholars must first understand the causes and consequences of partisan animosity. Then they can prescribe the right tools to treat it.
As part of his work to find ways to improve political discourse and reduce polarization, Westwood has tested whether a positive experience with a member of the opposing political party could change feelings. As the Nature article explained, Westwood found those positive experiences increased the warmth participants felt toward that person. Those encounters did not enhance support for democratic norms, however. To achieve that goal, Westwood told Nature politicians need to be part of the solution.