In today’s partisan political conflicts, it
The premise is simple, and it seems like common sense: If Republicans and Democrats could come together for good faith dialogue, the conversations would reduce tensions and ease the corrosive polarization that threatens U.S. democracy.
But one new study co-authored by UC Berkeley political scientist David Broockman found that brief cross-party conversations on sensitive political topics have little power to reduce divisions. Conversation on neutral topics can create some goodwill, the authors found, but even there the effect doesn’t last.
“There is an assumption that these conversations will have positive consequences for democracy,” Broockman said. “In that scenario, someone might say, ‘I’ve gotten to know the other side, and I like them more, and so now I’m more ok with my rep working with a rep from the other side, and I’m less likely to vote for a politician in my party who’s going to try to disenfranchise the other side.
“Essentially, though, we found none of that,” he added. “Just liking voters on the other side more doesn’t seem to affect your political behavior.”
The new research was published today (Wednesday, June 22) in the journal Scientists progress. It was co-authored by Broockman and Erik Santoro, a Ph.D. student in social psychology at Stanford University.
Broockman’s recent research has focused on the dynamics of political division and the role of communication in fostering more constructive engagement.
His work has revealed that political activists going door-to-door to promote a cause can have a significant and lasting persuasive impact listening effectively and talking about people’s life experiences. Earlier this year, he reported that conservative Fox News viewers who spent a month listening to CNN instead experienced a broad shift in their political views — until they come back to watch Fox.
Another one paper by co-authored by Broockman, to appear in the American Journal of Political Sciencefinds that reducing hostilities associated with political polarization may, in fact, not improve the health of democracy.
Interesting insights into what works and what doesn’t
Alarmed by the increasingly brutal division of the American electorate, a growing legion organizations in the United States are working to bring the right and the left together to discuss and deliberate. For instance, BridgeUnited Statesa 6-year-old non-profit organization with close ties to Berkeleyworks on college and high school campuses to encourage discussion that transcends partisan rancor to focus on defining challenges and solutions.
Broockman, in an interview, pointed out that his latest research does not contradict these efforts. Rather, he said, it’s critical to explore what kind of engagement works to lessen polarization — and how to make the positive results deeper and longer lasting.
Detailed research in Scientists progress covers two experiments. In one, the authors paired hundreds of Republicans and Democrats for brief one-on-one discussions on a topic that’s usually uncontroversial: What makes a perfect day?
These conversations produced significant reductions in polarization, Broockman and Santoro found. But within three months, the reductions had all but disappeared.
In the second experiment, the researchers repeated the first experiment, but also brought together Republicans and Democrats for one-on-one discussions focused on potentially tense policy topics. They were split into two groups – in one, pairs of Democrats and Republicans were tasked with talking about why they identify with their own parties, and in the other they were tasked with discuss why they don’t like each other’s party.
These conversations had virtually no effect on reducing polarization.
Still, the study produced some intriguing insights into how we can all get along. Among those assigned to talk about what they liked at their own parties, research subjects felt that their interlocutors weren’t really listening to them. These conversations usually lasted about 13 and a half minutes.
But those who are responsible for discussing what they hated on the opposing political party seemed to have an easier time. Their conversations lasted much longer – almost 18 minutes, usually.
Although the discussions did not change political opinions, these people were more likely to say afterwards that the cross-party conversations were important. The study even found signs of hope suggesting very small reductions in polarization and increases in warmth toward people on the opposing side.
“People tend to think their own party is OK, but they don’t. to like their own party,” Broockman explained. “Their feelings are lukewarm. And so when someone else says, “Here’s what I don’t like about your party,” most people will agree and say, “Yeah, my party isn’t perfect.”
Turns out real life is more civil than Facebook
This underlines another idea of the study. With participants’ consent, all conversations were recorded, and Broockman said he was struck by the consistently civil tone he saw in the transcripts.
“None of the conversations I reviewed resulted in the kind of arguments you would see on Facebook,” he said. “Our research participants didn’t go away hating each other more. In some ways, that may be better than people expected.
“When we think of the other side, we tend to think of people who show up on social media saying the most extreme things in the most uncivil way. But that’s really not the way the person average interacts when talking face to face.
Such insights—small, but encouraging—suggest that further research may shed light on a recipe for policy discussions that could reduce polarization and produce other pro-democracy effects.
For example, Broockman said it might be interesting to see what happens if person-to-person engagements are more in-depth, longer-term discussions and not just one-off discussions. If researchers could find a way to reduce polarization through individual engagements, he said, then they could investigate interventions that might help maintain and build that trust.
But in the end, Broockman advised, we should probably let common sense temper our optimism. Democracy is difficult; conflicts and polarization are features, not bugs, of the system.
“Democracy exists to manage the inevitable differences of opinion that exist in any society,” he said. “Differences of opinion are not necessarily a problem in themselves. But people need to be able to discuss it.
Randomized clinical/controlled trial
The title of the article
The promise and pitfalls of cross-party conversations to reduce affective polarization: Evidence from randomized experiments
Publication date of articles
June 22, 2022