Peter McKnight: ‘false polarization’ endangers democracy

Opinion: too many people falsely believe their political opponents have extremist views

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Not long ago, I was a communist, a far-left lunatic who despised faith, family, and freedom. The week before, I was a rabid right wing, a religious fanatic who deplored democracy. And as an ideological contortionist, I have also managed to be both at the same time.

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At least that’s what my letter writers have told me, who take the time each week to write to me about how wrong I am about everything. You may have had this experience yourself, where someone whose politics you don’t share accuses you of harboring all sorts of exaggerated and extreme beliefs.

It turns out that this phenomenon is surprisingly frequent and, without exaggeration here, it could be contributing to the collapse of democracy. That’s the conclusion of a series of studies conducted by psychologists at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, along with their colleagues from the universities of Toronto and Alabama.

The studies, which are currently undergoing peer review and therefore subject to review, involved assessing what self-identified liberals and conservatives think of each other. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” refer to ideologies, not political parties.

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The researchers presented the participants with a variety of partisan political views, some of which are considered “moderate” and others “extreme.” For example, cutting taxes was a moderate conservative view, while providing a social safety net qualified as a moderate liberal position. Extreme views included discriminating against racial or ethnic groups (conservative) or prohibiting freedom of expression (liberal).

The researchers then asked the participants if they agreed with these views and also asked them to estimate the percentage of liberals and conservatives who would agree. Both liberals and conservatives were quite accurate in estimating mutual support for moderate positions.

However, both groups were wildly inaccurate in estimating their political opponents’ support for extreme issues. While a relatively small minority of conservatives agreed with the extreme positions, liberals believed that a significant majority of conservatives did. And conservatives similarly overestimated liberal support for extreme positions.

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Both liberals and conservatives, therefore, believe in a kind of caricature of the other, in which extreme views are seen as characteristics, even defining characteristics, of a political ideology. And that means that many liberals and conservatives dislike each other for opinions they don’t even have.

That might be an ironically humorous observation, but the consequences of this “false polarization” are not at all funny. It is well established that people are unlikely to socialize with those they don’t like, which reduces the likelihood that people will know each other and thus correct these misperceptions.

Additionally, the researchers found that participants were reluctant to discuss their opposition to extreme views within their own political groups, effectively silencing moderate views and again ensuring that misperceptions are not corrected.

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This “cycle of misperceptions,” as the study authors call it, takes us down a dark path: To begin with, mutual misperceptions act as a barrier to negotiation on the many issues on which both parties agree.

Worse still, the researchers found that when supporters think their opponents have immoral views or engage in unethical conduct, they are more likely to excuse similar views and behaviors from those on their own side. Just look at what happens in any hockey game where one team thinks the other is cheating.

Indeed, in times of intense polarization, support for one’s political team becomes paramount: Partisans pay little attention to the strengths and weaknesses of policies and arguments and instead simply shore up their ideology at all costs.

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All of this is damning for democracy, but how did we get here?

Studies have an answer to that too, and it is, sigh, the media: Study participants who watched a lot of left or right-wing television were more likely to embrace a cartoonized version of their political opponents. The researchers did not assess the effect of Facebook and other currently under siege social networks, but their impact is likely significant.

Whatever happens, politically charged television or social media is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. So, apparently, the solution must come from the partisans themselves; maybe they really should know each other. Perhaps to the famous ancient Greek aphorism “know yourself” we should add: “Know others too”. They may not be what, or who, you think.

Peter McKnight’s column will appear weekly in the Sun. He can be reached at [email protected]


Letters to the editor should be sent to [email protected]. The editor of the editorial pages is Hardip Johal, who can be contacted at [email protected].

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