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Campus research discusses polarization, misconceptions of opposing parties

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Campus research sheds light on how sharing knowledge between Democrats and Republicans of each party’s commitment to democracy might reduce polarization.


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MAY 25, 2023

06/02/23: This article has been updated to reflect the authors’ comments on their theory’s asymmetry.

Campus research revealed that Republicans and Democrats vastly overestimate the other party’s willingness to compromise the upholding of democratic norms, according to Alia Braley, a campus doctoral candidate in the political science department and author of the study.

Braley informed participants that their partisan opponents were more loyal to democratic norms than commonly thought. As a result, Braley observed a seeming reduction in political polarization. Moreover, Braley noted that people became more committed to upholding democratic norms and less willing to vote for candidates who break these norms.

“Because my background is in civil resistance movements, I often studied political participation in autocratic contexts, and was aware of the ways that autocrats manage to stay in power,” Braley said in an email. “Particularly, the rhetoric that Trump uses, for instance, spreading distrust in elections, was a warning sign to me about the threat against democracy in the United States.”

Braley and other authors, including Gabriel Lenz, a campus professor of political science, used online surveys and online survey experiments. Braley noted that their smaller study, which included a total of 7,000 participants, was  replicated in Stanford’s Strengthening Democracy challenge mega-study, which consisted of more than 32,000. Braley noted that among the final 25 interventions in Stanford’s study, Braley’s team’s intervention  was most effective in increasing the support of democratic norms.

Lenz commented on the paper’s analysis of the causal relationship between a population’s fear of political opposition breaking democratic norms and the population excusing their own candidate’s negligence of democratic norms.

“We call this whole thing the subversion dilemma, where both parties are willing to take down democracy to stop the other party from taking down democracy first, which is just a terrible situation, and can lead to death spirals of democracy,” Lenz said.

Henry Brady, a campus professor of political science and public policy, proposed that while there is analysis of polarization of the mass public, there might not be an acknowledgment of the asymmetry between the actions of both parties. The authors, however, note that the theory laid out in their article is not symmetric but lays the blame squarely on “would-be authoritarian elites like Trump.”

In addition, Brady noted there is not much analysis of the role of elites as bad actors and how their actions contribute to and amplify the trends noted in the study.

“This research is very much about each group trying to signal they understand that the mass public on each side supports democracy, but it doesn’t really deal with whether the elites on each side support democracy and what you do when you have a very badly behaving elite that doesn’t support democracy,” Brady said.

In this way, Brady commented that the paper acknowledges only part of the problem, as there are perceptions of elites by the general public that affect polarization as well.

Braley noted a few surprises in the findings. Braley was surprised to find a symmetry in the commitment Democrats and Republicans both have to democracy as well as the fear that the other side is trying to undermine it. Braley added that future plans include testing ways to reduce the climate of fear and facilitate cooperation around issues concerning American democracy.     

“I have been surprised by the level of fear that people do have in the United States over issues of polarization and democracy,” Braley said. “I have also been surprised by how eager people are to learn that people on the other side of the aisle value democracy as much as they do. There is a need for hope and common vision for our future, and our shared commitment to democracy is a great place to start.”

Contact Sandhya Ganesan at