The United States might seem more divided than ever, but that could be because Americans have a distorted impression of people with opposing political views.
“Democrats and Republicans overestimate the proportion of people on the other side of the political aisle who hold extreme views by a factor of about two,” says Daniel Yudkin, associate director of research at More in Common.
“So, another way of saying that is that there are about half as many people with extreme views on the other side than Democrats and Republicans think.”
For example, 85% of Republicans say “properly controlled immigration can be good for America.” But Democrats believe only about half of Republicans would agree with that statement.
And while Republicans think almost half of Democrats believe “most police are bad people,” the reality is that far fewer Democrats, 15%, agree with that supposition.
A recent More in Common report finds that this perception gap is created by extremists in both parties who tend to have the loudest voices, in part because they are extremely active on social and traditional media.
"So, when people are learning and hearing the voices of the people they think are on the other side, they're actually hearing the voices of the most extreme contingent of those groups," says Yudkin, a co-author of the report.
"And so, they come to believe that those voices are representative of the people on both sides, when in fact, there's quite a lot of complexity and nuance that gets missed."
These false assumptions are detrimental to Americans because the greater the misperceptions, the more people begin to view people on the other side as hateful, brainwashed or ignorant. That negativity makes it difficult for Americans with opposing political views to cooperate on the issues where they do see eye to eye.
“There are a lot of issues that Americans actually agree about,” Yudkin says.
“We agree that we should have a properly controlled immigration system that's compassionate but also efficient. We agree that racism remains an issue in America right now. Most of Americans believe there's rampant inequality and that there should be higher taxes on the wealthy, for example. But these shared issues are undermined in the political process when sides come to see the other as the enemy.”
People tend to consume news that reinforces and confirms their biases about people in opposing constituencies, according to the report, which also finds that when conservatives and liberals consume news that runs counter to their own views, they make fewer false or exaggerated assumptions about the other side.
The bottom line is that Americans are less divided than they believe, according to Yudkin, and reducing the perception gap starts with understanding the reality of just how big — or small — that gap actually is.