If funders are ever going to promote civil society, they ought to be coming up with ways to make society more civil—that is, making sure that people in red and blue states understand that we’re all part of one country, that we all ought to get along, and that we should try to figure out how to work together and understand each other.
But in order to do this, we need a better sense of what conservatives believe about liberals and what liberals believe about conservatives. That’s the focus of “The Perception Gap,” a poll conducted by YouGov in 2018 for a nonprofit called More in Common.
This is the first I’ve heard of More in Common. I don’t recognize any of their staff, and they’re very careful not to say who funds them. But whoever has put up the money has a lot; the group is not only a 501(c)3 in the U.S. but also has equivalent nonprofit status in Germany and Great Britain.
One sign of where More in Common’s money may be coming from is that the Washington Post report written about them was by Amanda Ripley, a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective, the philanthropic vehicle of Laurene Powell Jobs. It would not surprise me if there were a connection between the Emerson Collective and More in Common.
The YouGov survey asked Republicans and Democrats if members of the other side believed a set of statements. Here are the three statements on each side where Republicans and Democrats were clueless about what the other side believed:
- Eighty-five percent of Democrats surveyed disagreed with the statement that “police are bad people.” But Republicans thought that only 48 percent of Democrats would disagree.
- Seventy-four percent of Democrats surveyed disagreed with the statement “The U.S. should have completely open borders.” But Republicans thought only 38 percent of Democrats would disagree with the statement.
- Seventy-four percent of Democrats agreed that “It is important that men are protected from false examples relating to sexual assault.” But Republicans thought that only 45 percent of Democrats would agree with this statement.
- Eighty-five percent of Republicans agreed that “Properly controlled immigration can be good for America.” But Democrats thought that only 52 percent of Republicans would agree with this statement.
- Seventy percent of Republicans agreed that “Many Muslims are good Americans.” But Democrats thought that only 41 percent of Republicans would agree with this statement.
- Seventy-nine percent of Republicans agreed that “Racism still exists in America.” But Democrats thought that only 51 percent would agree with this statement.
Interestingly, one question for which there was no perception gap was whether “Donald Trump is a flawed person.” Forty-eight percent of Republicans agreed with this statement, while Democrats thought that forty-seven percent of Republicans would agree.
The pollsters found that the “perception gap” between liberals and conservatives increased with the more media one read. They found that the perception gap increased the most for people who read right-wing news sites like Breitbart, Red State, or Hot Air, which tended to distort the knowledge the right had of the left by about 10 percentage points. The survey also found that liberal sites, such as Slate, the Huffington Post, or Daily Kos tended to distort the views of conservatives almost as much as talk radio shows like Rush Limbaugh distorted the views of liberals. More surprisingly, readers of the New York Times and the Washington Post had distorted knowledge of the right. These newspapers made conservatives five percent more fanatical than they actually were.
The only people surveyed who had undistorted views of the left and right: people who didn’t read news and people who got most of their news from the nightly network news broadcasts.
What, then, can be done to reduce polarization? Amanda Ripley in her Washington Post piece describes a field trip last fall where a group of women from a New York City synagogue went to visit corrections officers in Michigan. The prison guards took the women to a firing range and a prison museum. The women then hosted the prison guards in Manhattan, where they visited the 9/11 Memorial, went to Shabbat services in the synagogue, and ate kosher Chinese food. They also were patient as the prison guards loaded up on swag at Trump Tower.
More importantly, the correction officers and the Manhattanites talked to each other. They found the other side was not as extreme as they had been portrayed. The liberal women learned that the conservative corrections officers didn’t believe in slamming the border shut—and that one of the guards even had a Filipino wife. The conservative prison guards listened for the first time to two women explaining what it was like to fall in love and marry.
“We were heard, genuinely heard, by those we felt misunderstood us,” said corrections officer Caleb Follett.
One other useful habit would be to avoid “nutpicking,” a term coined by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones to describe the practice of taking the most extreme advocate of a particular viewpoint and then claiming that this person is representative, making it seem that the other side is radical. Both liberal and conservative talk shows do this, because making fun of scary people you don’t like is an easy way to attract viewers.
National Review’s David French explains this practice by describing an environmental conference he went to in San Francisco where he discussed Evangelicals and the environment. A panelist, he writes, said that Evangelicals were weird. “He highlighted a person I’ve never heard of who has exactly zero political influence over the Evangelical movement,” but whose fringe views about the planet were eagerly quoted by nutpicking liberals eager to paint Christians as irretrievably scary.
Political polarization is one of the major problems of our time. It is important to consider what your organization is doing—or can do—to reduce it. Avoiding nutpicking in reports and publications, fairly representing the other side, and letting people talk and listen to one another are essential ways to oppose political polarization.