It’s not just your imagination. Something has really changed in American politics, he says Eli J. Finkel, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. Especially in the last five years, “the two sides hate each other so much,” he says — to the point that almost any tactic can be justified “to defeat these Satan worshipers on the other side.”
The dangers of this partisan hatred are obvious and playing out all around us, threatening our ability to deal with serious national issues and even jeopardizing the peaceful transition of power. But as the problem grows, so do efforts to understand and combat it. Hundreds of academic papers have tested ideas and interventions to reduce the partisan gap.
In a new study led by Rachel Hartman and Kurt Gray at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Finkel and his colleagues examined 200 of these publications to see what lessons they might offer as a whole. Researchers have identified several common themes among efforts that succeed and fail in alleviating partisan animosity. Here are some of their basic formulations.
We misunderstand the problem — and each other
When we talk about contemporary American politics, we often frame the problem as one of polarization—that is, we think that the median left and right have diverged more in how they think about key political issues. But public opinion polling shows that’s not accurate, Finkel says: “It just hasn’t happened — not in any general sense.” Nor have we loved our own party members. How people feel about their fellow Democrats and Republicans has remained relatively stable.
So what’s different? “The biggest thing that’s changed is that we hate the other side more and more,” says Finkel. In the 1970s, when pollsters asked voters to rate from zero to 100 their feelings about the average supporter of the opposing party, “you would get something in the middle of the scale, about 50. Today, it’s closer to 20.”
In other words, we don’t have a problem of issues – we have a problem of emotions masquerading as a fight over policy. “Politicians and other political elites have fired our ire on this or that issue at a given point in time,” observes Finkel, “but the fundamental issue is partisan animosity.”
This may explain why some of the most promising interventions to reduce partisan hostility that researchers have identified have focused on correcting misconceptions. For example, a study found that Republicans and Democrats overestimated the extent to which the other side dehumanized them—by as much as 300 percent. By correcting such misconceptions, other research has found, can reduce hostility rates. Similarly, enough studies found that exposure to personal experiences of political opponents, as well as thoughtful arguments for their positions, softens people’s views of them.
“We don’t hate the other side because we understand what they stand for,” says Finkel. “We hate the other side because we have constructed villains, misrepresenting the average political opponent as a caricature zealot.”
Learning to talk about it
Another interesting group of interventions focused on relationship building and dialogue skills. “This is one of the oldest ideas in the empirical social sciences—how do people interact in ways that reduce prejudice rather than exacerbate it?” Finkel explains.
Dialogue monitoring, which emphasizes listening and curiosity rather than morality or persuasion, could help promote healthier dialogue, the researchers write. Several studies suggest this constructive conversation it can increase people’s positive perceptions of their political opponents
Similarly, encouraging positive interactions between liberals and conservatives can reduce hostility. The researchers highlighted the work of the organization Braver Angels, which hosts discussion workshops for “reds” and “blues” that have been shown to significantly reduce hostility and increase support for depolarization.
Beware of Backfire
Despite some promising strategies, trying to reduce political hatred is a delicate business, and researchers have identified several types of interventions that have had unintended consequences. For example, “one of the main ideas that everyone thinks should work is to get people out of their echo chambers,” says Finkel. Turns out it’s not that simple.
For example, Finkel points out a study who tried to reduce hostility by exposing people to social posts from political opponents, on the theory that “we’re only hearing one side, and that side is very ideologically and socially skewed, and … that’s why things get so extreme and unfriendly becomes so strong’.
No dice: seeing tweets from political opponents not only failed to reduce hostility, “people started to hate the other side more.” For Finkel, this shows that simply exposing opposing views with brute force is not enough – more complex and nuanced approaches are needed.
Building a healthier political culture
Many of the interventions that seemed to work best were based on people wanting to change – after all, it takes effort to attend a workshop or dialogue training, and anyone who does so has already shown that they are interested in learning from the other side.
“I’m pretty worried about this,” Finkel admits. “Because if you think the other side is literally Nazis, you’re not going to think, ‘How can I hear them better?’ You will be thinking, “How can I destroy them?” I do not feel sure that people who are intoxicated with the pleasure of reviling the other side will care to know whether their reviling is wrong.’ Understanding how to motivate people who have completely lost faith in their opponents is a question the literature has yet to answer.
But it is vital that we continue to research so that we can lower the temperature. For Finkel, that doesn’t mean we have to agree—in fact, he sees disagreement as essential. We just have to learn to do it in a way that doesn’t rely on distortion and dehumanization.
“I think our democracy can work with a lot of disagreements. But I want us to fight about real things,” he says. “Make an effort to understand what the other side really believes – and then fight hard. Fight it even with bad words, but at least understand it as opposed to fighting these demons and evils that we have made up in our heads.”