Americans’ Political Views Not So Far Apart

In an election year, it’s hard to turn on the television or read a newspaper without getting the sense that Americans are becoming ever more divided into red versus blue. But a new study finds that perception may be downright wrong.

In fact, political polarization among the public has barely budged at all over the past 40 years, according to research presented here on Jan. 27 at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. But, crucially, people vastly overestimate how polarized the American public is — a tendency toward exaggeration that is especially strong in the most extreme Democrats and Republicans. (The results do not apply to Congress, politicians or media pundits, but rather to the general public.)

“Strongly identified Republicans or Democrats perceive and exaggerate polarization more than weakly identified Republicans or Democrats or political independents,” said study researcher John Chambers, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida.

The people who see the world split into two opposing factions are also most likely to vote and become politically active, Chambers said in a talk at the meeting. This means that while real growing polarization is illusory, the perception of polarization could drive the political process.

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