Are we really so polarised?

Article by Dominic Packer and Jay Van Bavel: “In 2020, the match-making website OkCupid asked 5 million hopeful daters around the world: “Could you date someone who has strong political opinions that are the opposite of yours?” Sixty per cent said no, up from 53% a year before.

Scholars used to worry that societies might not be polarised enough. Without clear differences between political parties, they thought, citizens lack choices, and important issues don’t get deeply debated. Now this notion seems rather quaint as countries have fractured along political lines, reflected in everything from dating preferences to where people choose to live.

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Just how stark has political polarisation become? Well, it depends on where you live and how you look at it. When social psychologists study relations between groups, they often find that whereas people like their own groups a great deal, they have fairly neutral feelings towards out-groups: “They’re fine, but we’re great!” This pattern used to describe relations between Democrats and Republicans in the US. In 1980, partisans reported feeling warm towards members of their own party and neutral towards people on the other side. However, while levels of in-party warmth have remained stable since then, feelings towards the out-party have plummeted.

The dynamics are similar in the UK, where the Brexit vote was deeply divisive. A 2019 study revealed that while UK citizens were not particularly identified with political parties, they held strong identities as remainers or leavers. Their perceptions were sharply partisan, with each side regarding its supporters as intelligent and honest, while viewing the other as selfish and close-minded. The consequences of hating political out-groups are many and varied. It can lead people to support corrupt politicians, because losing to the other side seems unbearable. It can make compromise impossible even when you have common political ground. In a pandemic, it can even lead people to disregard advice from health experts if they are embraced by opposing partisans.

The negativity that people feel towards political opponents is known to scientists as affective polarisation. It is emotional and identity-driven – “us” versus “them”. Importantly, this is distinct from another form of division known as ideological polarisation, which refers to differences in policy preferences. So do we disagree about the actual issues as much as our feelings about each other suggest?

Despite large differences in opinion between politicians and activists from different parties, there is often less polarisation among regular voters on matters of policy. When pushed for their thoughts about specific ideas or initiatives, citizens with different political affiliations often turn out to agree more than they disagree (or at least the differences are not as stark as they imagine).

More in Common, a research consortiumthat explores the drivers of social fracturing and polarisation, reports on areas of agreement between groups in societies. In the UK, for example, they have found that majorities of people across the political spectrum view hate speech as a problem, are proud of the NHS, and are concerned about climate change and inequality…(More)”.