It’s not just your imagination. Something really has changed in American politics, says Eli J. Finkel, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. Over the last five years in particular, “the two sides have grown to hate each other so much,” he says—to the point that nearly any tactic can be justified “to beat those Satan worshippers on the other side.”
The dangers of this partisan animosity are evident and playing out all around us, threatening our ability to address serious national issues and even jeopardizing the peaceful transfer of power. But as the problem has grown, so too have efforts to understand and combat it. Hundreds of academic papers have tested ideas about—and interventions to reduce—the partisan divide.
In new research led by Rachel Hartman and Kurt Gray at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Finkel and his collaborators examined 200 of those publications to see what lessons they might offer as a whole. The researchers identified several common themes among efforts that succeed and fail in dampening partisan animosity. Here are a few of their key takeaways.
We’re Misunderstanding the Problem—and Each Other
When we talk about contemporary American politics, we often frame the problem as one of polarization—that is, we think the average lefty and righty have grown farther apart in how they think about key political issues. But public opinion polling suggests that’s not accurate, Finkel says: “It just hasn’t happened—not in any general sense.” Nor have we grown fonder of our own party members. The way people feel about their fellow Democrats and Republicans has remained relatively constant.
So, what’s different? “The major thing that’s changed is that we increasingly hate the other side,” Finkel says. In the 1970s, when pollsters asked voters to rate from zero to 100 their feelings about the average supporter of the opposing party, “you’d get something in the middle of the scale, about 50. Today, it’s closer to about 20.”
In other words, we’re not having an issues problem—we’re having a feelings problem that masquerades as a fight over policy. “Politicians and other political elites stoke our outrage over this issue or that issue at a given moment in time,” Finkel observes, “but the foundational issue is partisan animosity.”
This may explain why some of the most promising interventions to reduce partisan animosity the researchers identified focused on correcting misperceptions. For example, one study found that Republicans and Democrats overestimated the extent to which the other side dehumanized them—by as much as 300 percent. Correcting such misperceptions, other research has found, can reduce rates of animosity. Similarly, several studies found that exposure to political opponents’ personal experiences, as well as thoughtful arguments for their positions, softened people’s views of them.
“We don’t hate the other side because we understand what they stand for,” Finkel says. “We hate the other side because we have fabricated villains, misperceiving the average political opponent a caricatured zealot.”
Learning to Talk It Out
Another intriguing group of interventions focused on building relationships and dialogue skills. “This is one of the oldest ideas in the empirical social sciences—how do you have people interact in ways that reduce prejudice rather than exacerbate it?” Finkel explains.
Undergoing dialogue training, which emphasizes listening and curiosity rather than moralizing or persuading, could help to promote healthier dialogue, the researchers write. Several studies suggest that constructive conversation can increase people’s positive perceptions of their political opponents
Similarly, fostering positive interactions between liberals and conservatives can reduce animus. The researchers highlighted the work of the organization Braver Angels, which hosts discussion workshops for “reds” and “blues” that have been shown to significantly diminish animosity and increase support for depolarization.
Beware of the Backfire
Despite some promising strategies, trying to reduce political hatred is a delicate operation, and the researchers identified several types of interventions that had unintended consequences. For example, “one of the major ideas that everybody thinks should work is to get people out of their echo chambers,” Finkel says. Turns out, it’s not so simple.
For example, Finkel points to one study that attempted to reduce animosity by exposing people to social posts from political opponents, on the theory that “we’re only hearing from one side, and that side is very ideologically and socially slanted, and … that’s why things are getting so extreme and animosity is getting so strong.”
No dice: seeing tweets from political opponents not only failed to reduce animosity, “people started to hate the other side more.” To Finkel, this shows that simple brute-force exposure to opposing views isn’t enough—more sophisticated and nuanced approaches are needed.
Building a Healthier Political Culture
Many of the interventions that seemed to work best relied on people wanting to change—after all, it takes effort to attend a workshop or dialogue training, and anyone who does so has already shown they are interested in learning from the other side.
“I’m pretty concerned about that issue,” Finkel admits. “Because if you think the other side are literal Nazis, you aren’t going to be thinking, ‘How can I listen to them better?’ You’re going to be thinking, ‘How can I destroy them?’ I don’t feel confident that people who are drunk on the pleasure of vilifying the other side will be interested in learning if their vilification is incorrect.” Understanding how to motivate people who have entirely lost faith in their opponents is a question the literature has not yet answered.
But it’s vital to keep investigating so that we can turn down the temperature. To Finkel, that doesn’t mean we have to agree—in fact, he sees disagreement as essential. We just need to learn to do so in a way that doesn’t rely on distortion and dehumanization.
“I think our democracy can function with lots of disagreements. But I want us to be fighting over real stuff,” he says. “Make an effort to understand what the other side actually believes—and then fight it hard. Fight it even with mean words, but at least understand it as opposed to fighting these demons and villains that we have fabricated in our own heads.”