Mind & body, Politics & society, Research

Berkeley political scientists chart a promising course to ease toxic polarization

Republicans favor democracy, but they believe that Democrats don't. Democrats favor it, too, but believe Republicans don't. A simple trust-building exercise bodes well for U.S. democracy.

photo illustration of a fractured political landscape, alternating fragments of red and blue, with protesters, U.S. flags and bullhorns

New research co-authored at UC Berkeley details the psychological processes that demagogues exploit to erode support for democracy — and shows a way to bridge the dangerous divide. (Photo illustration by Neil Freese)

The year was 2020, just a few weeks before the presidential election, when Republican gubernatorial candidate Spencer Cox and Democratic opponent Chris Peterson teamed up to make an unconventional campaign ad. Appearing together on the same screen, they pledged to campaign in a civil, respectful way, and to honor November’s outcome.

In today’s polarized climate, such amiable politics seem not just improbable, but almost startling — and that may be why the ad went viral. But according to new research co-authored at UC Berkeley, such simple bipartisan commitments to the old-fashioned ideals of American democracy may offer a way to ease toxic polarization and increase positive feelings among voters on all sides.

The innovative research, released today (Monday, May 22) in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, found that both Republicans and Democrats expressed strong support for hallmark democratic practices. But support erodes when voters on one side believe their opponents are hostile to those values — and that dynamic can become dangerous when extremist political leaders continually manipulate their followers to believe that opponents are anti-democratic.

informal headshot of Alia Braley, Ph.D. student in political science, with a wall of books behind her.

Alia Braley (Photo by Dhaval Adjodah)

However, the researchers found, when suspicious voters learn that their opponents are committed to democracy, they, too, became more committed to democracy and less willing to vote for candidates who violate democratic values.

“You can increase people’s willingness to adhere to democratic norms by lowering their fear of the other side,” said co-author Alia Braley, who is pursuing a Ph.D. at Berkeley.

“Especially in a time when we have such a need for solutions, this has very important implications.”

That message may be especially important for Democrats, said Berkeley co-author Gabriel Lenz, an expert in voter psychology.

headshot of Gabriel Lenz, UC Berkeley political scientist

Gabriel Lenz (UC Berkeley photo)

“One of the main messages of this research is that Democrats shouldn’t give up on Republicans in a way that many of them have,” Lenz said. “Our surveys show that Republicans really support democracy and really want democracy to survive. They just need to be convinced that Democrats also support democracy.”

In an era when former President Donald Trump and MAGA political culture seem to be expanding voter enthusiasm for authoritarian politics, the new findings have real-world implications. If Democrats can find a way to get a pro-democracy message through to Republicans, Braley and Lenz said, then they can build trust and counter the anti-democratic slide.

The findings already have won high honors in Stanford University’s Strengthening Democracy Challenge, an effort among academics, practitioners and industry experts to find ways to improve Americans’ commitment to democratic principles of political engagement. They ranked first among all entries in reducing anti-democratic attitudes and first in overall impact on a combined set of polarization markers, including partisan animosity and support for partisan violence.

The research paper, “Why Voters Who Value Democracy Participate in Democratic Backsliding,” was written by Braley and Lenz, along with Dhaval Adjodah, Hossein Rahnama and Alex Pentland, all of MIT.

Voters don’t understand each other — and that’s dangerous

This new study fits within a growing field of research that is exploring ways in which voters misunderstand their political opponents and how this rift leads to hostility and even dehumanization directed at those opponents, and then to support for extremism and even violence.

At the core of the research is a concept pioneered by Braley, Lenz and others: the subversion dilemma. Voters in one group may strongly favor democracy, but if they believe opposing groups are subverting democracy, they will be more willing to compromise on democracy, too.

president trump speaks at a podium

The research found Republicans and Democrats both expressed strong support for democracy. But Donald Trump, by casting Democrats as enemies of democracy, has encouraged his own followers to compromise those values. (Photo by Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons)

Demagogues the world over — in Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey and the U.S. — recently have taken advantage of that. Their sustained, pernicious message is that their opponents are enemies of democracy, and this allows them to consolidate power by encouraging their own supporters to compromise democratic values.

Lenz called it Trump’s “magic weapon”: He undermined GOP voters’ trust in Democrats, and that set the subversion dilemma in motion.

Trump accused Democrats of rigging elections, even before he won in 2016, and persists now in claiming that Democrat Joe Biden won in 2020 only through fraud. While there is no evidence of fraud, millions of GOP voters still believe the charge.

The power of simple pro-democracy messaging

The researchers explored the terrain of misunderstanding and misperceptions. First, they asked nearly 2,000 Republican and Democratic voters whether they would support a range of actions that would hurt the opposing party — reducing polling stations, for example, enacting vote suppression laws to target opponents, and even political violence.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats expressed much support. But they broadly believed that their opponents favor such anti-democratic actions — and this led to a spike in their own willingness to undermine democracy.

“When would-be authoritarians convince their supporters to tolerate backsliding, they potentially scare their opponents into also supporting backsliding,” the authors wrote. “If those opposed to the aspiring autocrat begin to respond in kind, this may start a vicious cycle of anti-democratic action.”

An imagine from an online exercise, in which an animated man points out that while a Republican research believed that Democrats favor freezing the social media accounts of Republican journalists, most Democrats in fact do not favor that.

In one part of the research exercise, Democratic subjects were asked about the willingness of Republicans to subvert democratic practices. When Democrats assumed the worst, the program corrected their misimpression, based on collected data. Republicans were subject to the same exercise.

In a second phase of the study, the researchers creatively corrected the voters’ misperceptions of the opposing party.

For example: A Democratic voter, in a computer exercise, is asked whether Republicans would be willing to manipulate the U.S. Constitution to block Democratic policies. If the Democrat said “yes” — and many did — a small animated man on the screen would correct that misimpression based on data drawn from the first part of the study.

This simple intervention had significant impact: It reduced suspicions and increased positive emotions about voters on the other side, and reduced willingness to vote for anti-democratic leaders.

Even after the researchers controlled for the voters’ racial antagonism, rural-urban hostilities, psychological variables and other divisive factors, these findings held true.

Undermining trust, undermining democracy

One striking insight from the research is that the attitudes and responses play out in similar ways among both Republicans and Democrats. But the research has powerful real-world implications, especially for Democratic Party strategy in running campaigns against extremist GOP leaders.

“Democrats and, more generally, people who support democracy on the center or center-left, think that Republicans are supporting Trump in part because those Republican voters don’t support democracy,” Lenz explained. “What our paper suggests is actually the opposite — those Republican voters do support democracy. But probably because of Trump’s rhetoric, they’ve been led to believe that it’s actually Democrats who are the ones undermining democracy. They’re supporting Trump and tolerating his backsliding on democracy because they see it as necessary to combat Democrats and level the playing field.”

Republican Spencer Cox and Democrat Chris Peterson, both running for governor of Utah in 2020, created an unconventional video ad in which they promised to campaign in a civil, respectful way. The ad went viral.

“If I were a Democratic strategist,” added Braley, “we could have a counter-campaign that shows Republican citizens that Democrats actually do want to uphold democracy. And potentially, according to the logic of our research, that would make Republicans more willing to hold their representatives accountable to democratic norms.”

The key is rebuilding trust and a sense of shared goodwill, the authors suggest, much as Cox and Peterson tried to do in their Utah campaign ad. But in country that’s already deeply divided and in the storm of a presidential campaign, that may be a difficult needle to thread.

“In every little decision Democrats make,” Lenz said, “they have to think, ‘Is this just going to play into the hands of people trying to convince Republicans the Democrats don’t support democracy?’

“When Democrats are considering impeaching Trump or prosecuting him, they need to be aware of how much it plays into or works against Trump’s narrative about Democrats. The same is true for any changes in how we conduct elections or decide public policy. Even comments by Democrats implying that Republican-elected officials aren’t fully legitimate are weaponized by Trump to increase tolerance for his violations of democratic norms.”

Still, the paper points to hope at the grassroots, among individual Republicans and Democrats.

As part of the study, the researchers asked voters whether they would be interested in making a one-to-one pact with a member of the opposing party, agreeing that they would never vote for a candidate who undermines democracy. Among Democrats, 60% said they would make the pact. Among Republicans, 72% agreed.

Communication and the fight against extremism

Time will pass, players will change, and parties inevitably will shift. Perhaps Trump will lose in a primary election, and the GOP will move on from MAGA. Or perhaps Democrats will lose their democratic bearings, too, and the threat will grow more acute.

Whatever the future holds, the research offers valuable insight into how divisive political rhetoric can erode trust and a shared support for democracy.

“When leaders use this rhetoric,” Braley said, “it should be taken potentially as a warning — a warning sign that they’re aspiring to undercut democracy itself.”

Now the scholars are imagining future research that could inoculate people against such psychological manipulation.

“We’re thinking about how we can take these findings and make them something that can impact people in the real world,” Braley said. “It’s going to be important to test different ways of getting this information to people, using different methods and messengers.”