Political Perception in the Polarized Era
- Author(s): Ahler, Douglas James
- Advisor(s): Lenz, Gabriel
- et al.
“Self-Fulfilling Misperceptions of Public Polarization”
Mass media convey deep divisions among citizens despite scant evidence for such ideological polarization. Do ordinary citizens perceive themselves to be more extreme and divided than they actually are? If so, what are the ramifications of such misperception? A representative sample from California provides evidence that voters from both sides of the state’s political divide perceive both their liberal and conservative peers’ positions as more extreme than they actually are, implying inaccurate beliefs about polarization. A second study again demonstrates this finding with an online sample and presents evidence that misperception of mass-level extremity can affect individuals’ own policy opinions. Experimental participants randomly assigned to learn the actual average policy-related predispositions of liberal and conservative Americans later report opinions that are 8-13% more moderate, on average. Thus, citizens appear to consider peers’ positions within public debate when forming their own opinions and adopt slightly more extreme positions as a consequence.
“The Parties in Our Heads: Misperceptions About Party Composition and Their Consequences” (co-authored with Gaurav Sood)
We document a consequential and heretofore unnoted perceptual phenomenon in American politics and public opinion: people considerably overestimate the share of party-stereotypical groups in the mass-level parties. For instance, people think that 32% of Democratic sup- porters are LGBT (6% in reality) and 38% of Republican supporters earn over $250,000 per year (2%). We demonstrate that these perceptions are genuine and party-specific, not artifacts of expressive responding, innumeracy, or ignorance of base rates. These misperceptions are relatively universal across partisanship and positively associated with political interest. With experimental and observational evidence, we document consequences of this perceptual bias: misperceptions are associated with partisan affect and attitudinal polarization, and when provided information about the actual share of various party-stereotypical groups in the out-party, partisans see supporters of the out-party as less extreme and feel less socially distant from them. Thus, people’s skewed mental images of the parties appear to fuel intense partisanship.
“Irresponsible Partisanship and Democratic Accountability: How Citizens Understand Party Conflict”
American citizens resent contemporary party conflict largely for its “process consequences.” These include incivility, gridlock, and government dysfunction. This is puzzling because political science generally concludes that such “irresponsible partisanship” is strategic. That is, Democratic and Republican politicians manipulate and intensify conflict as an electoral and messaging strategy. I evaluate potential resolutions for this puzzle, namely that citizens perceive party conflict as affectively-driven rather than strategic—and, importantly, that their tendency to see their own party as motivated by in-group love and the out-party by out- group hate impedes their ability to hold elites accountable for its process consequences. With data from the 2015 IGS-California Poll, I find citizens see both parties as significantly more motivated by strategy than emotion, especially when conflict is presented in less abstract, more policy-related terms. However, I also show that citizens generally oppose or lack strong attitudes toward reforms that could potentially curb process consequences. This suggests that blindness to institutional externalities, rather than to elite strategy, sustains irresponsible partisanship.