What we think about the other party

After the 2018 midterms, a group of researchers took a snapshot of 2,100 Republicans’ and Democrats’ political views (of all genders!), then asked them to estimate what proportion of folks from the other party concurred with several political statements. So for a Republican taking the survey, one question read, “What percentage of Democrats think that: The U.S. should have completely open borders?”

To sum up their findings: When we look at the other side, we don’t see reality. We see an exaggerated fiction that distorts people’s actual beliefs. When this Perception Gap study was released in 2019, it found that, on average, Democrats are off by 19 percentage points when estimating Republicans’ views and Republicans are off by 27 percentage points when estimating Democrats’ views.

What does that mean, exactly? Let’s draw this out using the immigration question, where both sides were awful judges of each other’s positions. The Republicans surveyed thought that 38 percent of Democrats reject open borders, when in reality 71 percent of Democrats do. That’s a 33 percentage point gap.

Democrats did no better. They thought just half of Republicans believed that “properly controlled immigration can be good for the country,” when actually, 85 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement. A 35 percentage point gap. 

A 2020 study called America’s Divided Mind dubbed this the “disagreement divide” and came to a similar conclusion: On both sides of the aisle, Americans think we’re more divided by our political beliefs than we really are. We’re also really, really bad at correcting stereotypes about who’s in which party. In a 2018 study that made my jaw hit the floor, Americans thought that a third of Democrats were gay, lesbian, or bisexual when just 6 percent are, and that four out of ten Republicans earn more than $250,000 in a year (that’s a quarter-million dollars, folks!) when only 2 percent actually do. If this sounds extreme, that’s because it is – and so is the othering that flows from it. Researchers out of Stanford and Princeton found as far back as 2014 that people discriminate against members of the opposing political party “to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race.”

Researchers who study political division talk about three kinds of polarization. The first is ideological polarization, due to actual policy disagreements between people. The second is affective polarization, due to growing animosity between people in either party. And the third is  “perceived” or “false” polarization, the “degree to which partisans overestimate the ideological division between their side and their opponents.”

Ideological polarization is based on reason. Affective polarization is based on feelings. But false polarization? That’s just based on a lie.

Seeing how all those wrong ideas about what the other side thinks were tearing the country apart, a group of researchers asked a slightly different question. How good are we at guessing what the other side thinks of us?

Still terrible. While Democrats and Republicans think equally little of each other, the researchers found in their 2020 study, each side thinks the other despises them about twice as much as they actually do.

This is how othering blinds us. We believe the other side is worse, so we make them out to be worse. Not just in how they see the world, but in how they treat good and decent people – us. As a result, we don’t approach people on the other side as they really are but as they appear to us through a thick layer of our own misperceptions.

No wonder it’s tough to talk across the political divide. We can’t even see across it. 

From “I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times” by Mónica Guzmán