Americans largely misunderstand their political opponents, and the more they misunderstand, the more they assume bad motives.
While Americans are becoming increasingly divided along political lines, this polarization is exacerbated by misperceptions. We agree more than we think we do. This is the conclusion of a study, "The Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart," by More in Common.
(You can take a quiz that measures your perception gap on the report's website. If this interests you, you should take the quiz before reading further because some of the answers are provided below.)
On average, Democrats and Republicans believe that over half (55%) of their partisan opponents are extremists, but in reality, less than one-third (30%), are extremists, the report found. This perception gap is even wider for strong partisans, those who consume lots of news, and highly educated Democrats.
The survey of 2,100 Americans was conducted the week after the 2018 midterm election, Nov. 7-10, and included a subset of respondents to a 2018 survey. The margin of error for the full sample is 2.1 percentage points.
Respondents were asked a different set of questions on a range of policy views depending on whether they identified as Republican or Democrat. They were then asked what portion of opposite party held the views for their set of questions. The Republican question set, for instance, included, "Racism still exists in America," and "Donald Trump is a flawed person." The Democrat question set included, "Most police are bad people," and "America should be a socialist country." So a Republican, for instance, would be asked both whether they believe racism still exists and to estimate what percentage of Democrats believe most police are bad people.
The study found that 34% of Republicans hold extreme views but Democrats on average thought that number would be 53%. For Democrats, 29% are extreme, but Republicans thought 56% would be that way. Independents also had a perception gap but it was much smaller, and overall they estimated that majorities of both parties are not extremists.
For Democrats, the perception gap was highest on questions about whether Republicans believe immigration is good for America (33 percentage points) and racism still exists (28 percentage points). For the Donald Trump question and a question about climate change, they estimated correctly, within the margin of error.
For Republicans, the perception gap was highest (37 percentage points) for a question about whether Democrats believe cops are bad. Their smallest perception gap (13 percentage points) was on whether Democrats think ICE should be abolished.
Most media consumption increased the perception gap. The only exception was those who reported watching the network news channels — ABC, CBS, and NBC — which improved perceptions by 6 percentage points. Incredibly, those who reported no media consumption at all had 2 percentage points better scores than the average.
All other media consumption was associated with less accurate views of political opponents. Among those, the media consumption with the lowest increase in a perception gap was "religious news sources like The Christian Post or the Christian News Network." The largest perception gap increases came from Breitbart News and "sources such as the Drudge Report, Redstate.com, or HotAir.com."
Broken down by party, Democrats who consumed Fox News, "religious news sources like The Christian Post or the Christian News Network," or "talk Radio programs like Rush Limbaugh or the Sean Hannity Show" had lower perception gaps than the average. And Republicans who consumed CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, or "none of the above" had lower perception gaps. The variance for these numbers were high, however, due to the small numbers of Democrats who choose conservative media and vice versa.
The report also found that the more media one consumes, the higher the perception gap, and those who share political content on social media have a higher perception gap.
For Democrats, the report found, higher levels of education are associated with larger perception gaps, but the same is not true for Republicans.
"Democrats seem to become more inaccurate as they get more educated," the report states.
Each new level of educational attainment for Democrats — high school, 2 year college, 4 year college, post-grad — adds about 4 percentage points to the perception gap. Postgraduate Democrats have an average perception gap of 34 percentage points. These results remained when controlling for other factors in a multivariate analysis, which led the authors to conclude, "Put simply, the evidence indicates that pursuing higher education itself, over and above demographic factors, plays a role in distorting Democrats’ understanding of Republicans."
Additionally, the report found that higher ed Democrats have less diverse friend groups than Republicans and less educated Democrats, and as expected, having homogeneous friend groups correlates with higher perception gaps.
Those with the highest misperceptions (large perception gaps), also had the most negative views of their partisan opponents. Those who disagreed with them were not just thought of as misinformed, but holding bad motives — hateful, brainwashed or racist. These two characteristics, large misperceptions and the belief that opponents are of bad character, likely "go hand in hand as part of a dynamic of negative partisanship, whereby people define themselves in opposition to their political opponents, and see politics as a zero-sum game with winners and losers," the report concludes.
The authors of the report are Daniel Yudkin, More in Common senior director of research, Stephen Hawkins, More in Common director of research, and social movement builder Tim Dixon. According to its website, "More in Common is a new international initiative, set up in 2017 to build communities and societies that are stronger, more united and more resilient to the increasing threats of polarisation and social division."