The Differential Effects of Actual and Perceived Polarization

Adam M. Enders, Miles T. Armaly
  • Political Behavior, June 2018, Springer Science + Business Media
  • DOI: 10.1007/s11109-018-9476-2

Perceived polarization, and the effects thereof, are distinct from actual ideological differences.

What is it about?

A great deal of research examines the individual-level correlates of polarization, as well as the consequences of polarization for political attitudes and behaviors like voting, political participation, and trust in government. Yet, these studies often employ measures of actual polarization — the distance between one’s preferences from those of the out-party, as measured by policy preferences. Our work contributes to our understanding of the effects of polarization by considering how mere perceptions of polarization impact subsequent political attitudes and behaviors, and compares the effects of perceived polarization to actual polarization. Congruent with previous research, we find that perceived polarization has risen more sharply than actual polarization over time. We also find that certain political and demographic properties relate to the types of polarization in different ways. For instance, ideological strength is more strongly associated with perceived polarization than actual; elite polarization relates to perceived polarization, but not to actual polarization. Perceived and actual polarization also relate to substantive attitudes and behaviors in different ways. Perceived polarization is more strongly related to self-reported voting, participation, and trust in government than is actual polarization. We even observe countervailing effects of perceived and actual polarization on voting, such that perceived polarization is positively associated with voting, whereas actual polarization is negatively related to voting. Finally, perceived polarization is much more strongly related to animus toward out-party candidates, ideological groups, and the parties than is actual polarization.

Why is it important?

Our results suggest that researchers should consider two things when conducting studies regarding polarization. First, whether the correlate or consequence of polarization theoretically relates to actual distances in policy preferences, or perceptions thereof. Second, whether measures of polarization anchored to the individual are more appropriate than differences in aggregate party preferences. Furthermore, our results have broad implications for an increasingly polarized world where politics is a largely emotional enterprise. While Americans don’t actually have great disagreements on matters of policy, such disagreements need not be present to pose a meaningful problem. Rather, the mere perception of political differences is sufficient to enflame disagreements and polarize. When individuals perceive great distances between themselves and the out-party, they feel more loathsome toward out-party members and their representatives, they self-report lower rates of voting, and trust the government less. This perceptual gulf increases with sophistication, strength of attachments to parties, education, and elite polarization — all characteristics that are either fixtures of the political world or normatively desirable. Moreover, perceptions, unlike actual differences in policy preferences, can be incorrect. That misperceptions seem to influence behaviors, orientations, and affect more than actual issues is striking.

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The following have contributed to this page: Professor Miles T. Armaly