The misperception of American political polarization

February 3, 2012

The misperception of American political polarization

Feb. 3, 2012                       Leaf Van Boven           

The American flag is red, white and blue but when it comes to politics Americans see the nation as Red and Blue. News outlets such as CNN and The New Yorker describe the growing political polarization between Republicans and Democrats. But according to Leaf Van Boven, a psychologist at CU-Boulder who just completed a study on polarization, data shows Americans are much less polarized politically then many people believe.

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The misperception of American political polarization

Feb. 3, 2012                                                Leaf Van Boven           

The American flag is red, white and blue but when it comes to politics Americans see the nation as Red and Blue. News outlets such as CNN and The New Yorker describe the growing political polarization between Republicans and Democrats. But according to Leaf Van Boven, a psychologist at CU-Boulder who just completed a study on polarization, data shows Americans are much less polarized politically then many people believe.

CUT 1 “Data’s been collected with representative samples from 1968 through 2004. It’s very, very clear that Americans generally overestimate the degree of polarization between Democrats and Republicans. And they do that across a bunch of different issues and we’ve seen that that is true since we’ve been taking those measures.”

According to the study by Van Boven, the gap between Republicans and Democrats would rank half a scale point on a five-point scale. However, people believe there’s a significant difference between the two parties. People’s perception of polarization comes from their own political beliefs, says Van Boven.

CUT 2 “To a large extent the variability and perceived polarization comes from people’s own strength of support for one candidate over the other. And we’ve seen this with other issues as well so supporter opposition to the death penalty or a constitutional ban on abortions. The more strongly people feel, the more polarized they see other Americans. So that is really the key find.

The misconception, he says, then affects how citizens will vote and who will become involved in political activities.

CUT 3 “Many commentators have pointed out that the nature of American politics really pushes people who are the most extreme to be most involved in politics. We really end up in a situation where … we’re making decisions on who to vote for, how much we like one candidate versus the other based on a faulty assumption of how divided we are, even how divided the candidates might be.”

However, while Van Boven‘s data states there is a misconception of polarization, it is uncertain how much polarization has grown over time.

CUT 4 “We can’t say for certain that there’s been no change in polarization over time, but what is clear is that Americans see themselves as very sharply polarized. And that degree of perceived polarization dramatically overstates the actual degree of polarization.

Van Boven’s research is focused on the consciousness of everyday life and people’s mental representation of psychological experiences in themselves and others.

 

-CU-

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