Our friends at the Kettering Foundation recently posted about a paper on the seriousness of the challenge posed by political polarization. You can read the post below or find the original post on the KF News blog here: www.kettering.org/kfnews/do-partisan-elites-polarize-the-public.
Is polarization an elite or public phenomenon, or is it, indeed, both? KF research associate David McIvor recently analyzed a paper in the American Political Science Review that asks whether partisan-polarized environments can affect how citizens come to judge public issues. The study finds that polarized partisan environments do “fundamentally change” how citizens form opinions.
For this study, the authors draw their conclusions from experiments wherein the partisan cues are manipulated. For instance, on a particular issue participants were told either that a) the parties were polarized and that there was little middle ground or b) that members from different parties could be found on each side of the issue (i.e. a nonpolarized political environment).
When using oil drilling as an issue, the study finds that polarization increases the salience of party identification and decreases the relevance of substantive policy information. In other words, the polarization of the parties affects how individuals perceive and process the issue at hand. Under conditions of intense polarization, citizens were less likely to rely on substantive arguments and more likely to depend upon partisan cues and party identification when forming opinions. By contrast, depolarized environments can allow the substance and tradeoffs presented to take precedence, with partisan cues and endorsements losing their strength.
Polarization, for instance, can lead citizens to discount substantive policy information and rely on party cues. Polarized environments also encourage increased confidence about citizens’ preferences or position, which leads citizens to tune out disconfirming evidence.