Berkeley study dissects America’s polarized political climate – and how to fix it

MAGA Sentiments displayed in Anchorage, Alaska

MAGA Sentiments displayed in Anchorage, Alaska. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Campaigns for the 2024 presidential election are in full swing, with several Republican powerhouses entering the race, including former President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

The crowded field of popular conservatives will be narrowed down to a single candidate who will likely face President Biden, who has announced his candidacy for re-election. The upcoming election follows a tumultuous presidential race in 2020, which was ripe with misinformation about election rigging that caused further mistrust among Republicans and Democrats.

A new study from the University of California, Berkeley focuses on American voters and found that simple bipartisan commitments to genuine American democracy can offer a way to lessen polarization and increase positive feelings on all sides. .

The research, published May 22 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, found that both major parties believe in democratic process and values. But dysfunction arises when voters on one side believe their opponents are hostile to those values. The study suggests that extremist political leaders can manipulate their supporters into believing that opponents are undemocratic.

Then-President Donald Trump speaking to supporters at the Ellipse near the White House on January 6, 2021.

Then-President Donald Trump speaking to supporters at the Ellipse near the White House on Jan. 6, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

“In both groups, we found a very strong relationship. … The people most willing to break the rules of our democracy themselves are also the people who fear the most that the other party [is] breaking norms,” Gabe Lenz, a UC Berkeley professor and co-author of the study, told Yahoo News.

He said many factors have contributed to America’s current political turmoil.

“A lot of political science research suggests that rising inequality has contributed to this and that incomes are stagnating among people without a college degree. But I think one factor consistent with our studies that is underestimated is that some politicians excel at creating conflict and creating us versus them situations and fostering misperceptions of the other side,” Lenz said.

There are a few examples in the United States of positive political discourse, the study highlighting one from 2020:

A few weeks before the presidential election, Republican gubernatorial candidate Spencer Cox and Democratic opponent Chris Peterson appeared in a joint campaign ad. On screen together, they have vowed to campaign in a civil manner and respect the outcome of the November election. The ad went viral. Cox ultimately won the race.

Can’t we all get along?

Alia Braley, a professor at UC Berkeley, came up with the idea for the study and is a co-author. She told the Berkeley News, “You can increase people’s willingness to adhere to democratic norms by reducing their fear of the other side.”

An organization was founded to do just that. A non-profit organization called Braver Angels organizes meetings and debates across the country, known as red/blue workshops, to reduce political polarization.

During a debate in a conservative town in Texas, eight Republicans and eight Democrats sat down at a table and were instructed to hold a civil speech. They had to get along and find common ground. A local journalist who witnessed it found it to be a useful tool for discourse.

“We started right after the 2016 election,” Braver Angels chief marketing officer Ciaran O’Connor told Yahoo News. “The point was to see, can we bring together people who voted for Trump and people who voted for Hillary, could we bring them together in a constructive way where they could actually talk to each other, rather than just against each other . And so, we designed our first workshop based on the principles of family and couple therapy.

Voter confidence: the “dilemma of subversion”

The study highlights a theory it called the “dilemma of subversion”: people who want to live in a democracy might tolerate “the defection of their representatives to save democracy from their adversaries”. Essentially, if citizens believe that one side is allowing their representatives to act undemocratically, then they might have an incentive to let their leaders commit similar acts.

“All over the world, anti-democratic leaders are convincing their supporters to vote against their political rights,” according to the study.

“While 78% of the world’s population say they want to live in a representative democracy, democracies continue to erode, with 70% of the population living in autocracies,” the study says. “Citizens of Venezuela, Turkey and Hungary strongly supported democracy while voting for authoritarian leaders Chávez, Erdoğan and Orbán, respectively.

donald trump

Trump waves to supporters at an event in Grimes, Iowa on June 1. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

He also mentioned President Trump, who continues to spread lies about the Democratic-rigged election, a claim that has been definitively refuted. For example, in 2016 he repeatedly said that the elections were rigged before they even happened.

Then, on January 6, 2021, a crowd of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to block Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. After the attack, dozens of Republican members of Congress still voted against the decertification of the results of the presidential race.

“This rhetoric likely contributed to the attack on Capitol Hill and the widespread belief among Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen,” the study adds.

But the study also takes aim at Democrats, noting a tweet from progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019, “Well, it’s official: Republicans are now arguing that the United States isn’t (and shouldn’t be). ) a democracy. That’s what they believe. From lobbyists writing their bills to sabotaging our civil rights, the GOP is working to end democracy,” and in 2020, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “Health care. Reproductive freedom. Workers’ rights. The future of dreamers. Our planet. Democracy. Everything is at stake, so everything is on the table.

The authors believe that restoring trust and a sense of shared goodwill is key to tackling volatility.

Election disinformation and the solution

“The majority of people on both sides believe that they are the ones protecting democracy. I think you have political leaders or cynical people manipulating people,” O’Connor said.

“But I think the majority of people believe in democracy, but they’ve been convinced by the media that it’s the other side that wants to take away their rights or steal the election,” she added. “Trump accused Democrats of rigging the election, even before his victory in 2016, and now insists that Democrat Joe Biden only won in 2020 by fraud.”

Joe Biden

President Biden during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

A hypothesis stemming from the study suggests that somehow reducing fears that the opposing party violates democratic norms could lead voters to choose candidates who uphold those principles, not destroy them. But it won’t be easy.

“In our survey data, we see many signs that Republicans want to protect democracy and that they are open to reports that Democrats want to do the same. So Republicans may be open to these messages and signals. , far more so than many Democrats assume,” the study concludes.

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