Simmering tension in American politics came to a head two years ago, when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election.
But on the cusp of the November 2022 midterm elections, the majority of Republicans said they still believed the false claim – that President Joe Biden won in 2020 because of voter fraud.
The riots are an extreme example of what happens when a country becomes trapped in a cycle of polarization and distrust. But that does not mean there is no hope for bridging that divide.
While there is no quick fix to the problems of polarization and animosity, there are ways to lower the temperature of U.S. politics.
About 80% of registered voters – Democrats and Republicans alike – said in October 2020 that their differences with the other side were about core American values. Majorities of both registered Republicans and Democrats also have called the other side immoral and dishonest in 2022 public opinion polls.
Unsurprisingly, then, few voters and most people do not want to talk to those on the other side of the aisle, thinking it will be a waste of time.
The truth of the matter is quite different.
We conducted an academic study throughout 2019, bringing people who said they identified as either Republicans or Democrats together in person for cross-party conversations. We intended to examine the effects of in-person discussion on polarization.
In total, we hosted more than 500 people from around metropolitan Philadelphia in community centers, libraries, schools and other venues. The results suggest that such conversations offer a pathway to minimizing animosity.
We found that in-person conversations with people from the other side of the political spectrum reduced partisan hostility by almost 20%.
These conversations have several different effects. First, they help people to see that sometimes the parties share common ground. Second, conversation also helps people better understand other people’s point of view and may also help them see that other people might have a valid reason for their beliefs.
Importantly, this depolarizing effect lingered afterward. When we interviewed people a week later, we found that talking it out had a lasting impact.
When people think of those from the other political party, they have a rather warped view of who that person is. For example, Americans think that almost 1 in 3 Democrats are LGBTQ, while, in reality, only 6% are. Because people mostly interact with those like themselves, their views of the other party are heavily influenced by the mass media. Many media sources tend to amplify the loudest and most extreme voices on both sides.
But when people see that not all people in the other party are extremists, they realize that they might have painted the other party with too broad of a brush.
How, then, can Americans be encouraged to bridge the political divide and find common ground? That is hard, no doubt, but there are many civic groups that are working to do just that. For example, we’re both members of the scholars council for the bipartisan organization Braver Angels, which is an independent group bringing Americans together, trying to bridge political divides.
Bridging these divides is ultimately up to all Americans. Most people avoid in-person political discussions across lines of disagreement because they fear confrontation and discomfort.
But if people enter a conversation with an open mind, they will likely learn something.
To be clear, conversation is not a cure-all for political division and animosity, and there will be divides that cannot be bridged. The goal is not unanimity but a better understanding of one another.
Dominik Stecula is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University. Matthew Levendusky is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Distributed by The Associated Press.
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