Perceiving Political Polarization in the United States: Party Identity Strength and Attitude Extremity Exacerbate the Perceived Partisan Divide
58 Pages Posted: 9 Dec 2012 Last revised: 22 Oct 2014
Date Written: October 20, 2014
An important component of political polarization in the United States is the degree to which ordinary people perceive political polarization. Social perception shapes social reality. People’s beliefs about the polarization between Democrats’ and Republicans’ attitudes can shape their political behavior. We present a three-factor framework to understand people’s perceptions of political attitude polarization between Democratic and Republican parties and between presidential candidates. We suggest that people perceive greater political polarization when they: (a) estimate the attitudes of those categorized as being on the “opposing side”; (b) identify strongly as either Democrat or Republican; and (c) hold relatively extreme partisan attitudes — particularly when those partisan attitudes align with people’s partisan political identity. In support of this framework, we present results from the American National Election Study, a large-scale study of representative Americans, in which people estimate the attitudes of Democrats, Republicans, and of the presidential candidates. In addition, we find that people generally exaggerate political polarization between the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans, and that those people who perceive the greatest political polarization are most likely to report having been politically active, including voting, persuading others, and making campaign contributions. These patterns of polarization perception emerge for both Democrats and Republicans.
Keywords: attitudes, identities, political psychology, polarization, politics, American National Election Study
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