Americans Agree that Polarization is a Significant Threat to Democracy. Could Humanization Be The Antidote?

April 18, 2024

Citizen Data’s longitudinal research reveals persistent concerns around polarization’s effect on democracy. Americans across the political spectrum are guarded but they’re open to engaging with the other side. Humanization could be the key to overcoming partisan division.

Written by Marie Staniforth

The Majority of Americans Perceive Polarization as Significant Threat to Democracy

Our February poll of 1,010 registered voters revealed that Americans perceive political polarization and division to be the second largest threat to democracy, falling second only to money in politics. Polarization was perceived to be more of a threat to democracy than issues such as illegitimate elections, political violence, and voter suppression.

Concerns around polarization’s impact on democracy are not limited to one political party. Polarization was perceived to be the second greatest threat to democracy for Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents as well as Nonpartisan Independents, and the third greatest threat for Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents.

Concerns around polarization are not new. Back in May 2022, we wrote about how polarization – along with money in politics – was an issue that transcends the political spectrum. Longitudinal data from our monthly Omnibus poll demonstrates polarization as a persistent cause for concern for Americans.

Americans Feel Guarded Towards the Other Side but are Open to Talking

Yet, when we asked American voters to select two feelings towards the other side, less than one in six (16%) expressed anger and even fewer expressed resentment (12%). Rather, the top three feelings selected were guardedness (35%), skepticism (35%), and respect (26%). Curiosity (23%) was a close fourth[2].

Given that engrained feelings such as anger and resentment are less resonant than feelings of hesitation (guardedness and skepticism) and openness (respect and curiosity), there is an opportunity here to overcome polarization. Added to that, over half of Americans (56%) say that they would be willing to “play a part in reducing social division – for example by attending an event to talk about social issues with those who have different opinions than you”. Even when we zoom in on those who feel guarded towards the other side, 55% are willing to talk. By contrast, just over one in ten voters (12%) – and 11% of those who feel guarded – say they would definitely not be willing.

Together, these learnings demonstrate significant opportunities for overcoming the polarization which so many Americans have concerns about. As thinkers in the deliberative and agonistic democracy fields write, it is through the process of dialogue that conflicting citizens come to develop respect for one another. Knowing that the majority of Americans are willing to come together with those with whom they disagree to help overcome social division suggests the potential to transform guardedness and skepticism into respect and curiosity.

Respect – or agonistic respect as William E. Connolly refers to it in his work – is critical to overcoming polarization, since it promotes a “relation of interdependence and strife,” transcending surface-level toleration, and forming deep connections between those who deeply disagree. If done effectively, respectful dialogue can also promote curiosity: as James Tully states, when we practice mutual recognition we begin to understand others as they wish to be understood, rather than based on our prior assumptions of them. This allows us to challenge the underlying biases that we may have previously held towards conflicting others, and which contribute to our polarized society. As we noted in a previous article, groups like Braver Angels are already carrying out this essential work.

Humanization Can Help to Overcome Polarization by Promoting Respect and Curiosity

When it comes to building trust in others, whether it be the people running our elections, those who are communicating about our democracy, or those with whom we politically disagree, our research has found one constant: the need for humanization. American voters repeatedly tell us that while they may not trust the idea of a certain person, they are much more likely to trust those individuals who they know. In fact, in a recent poll, we A/B tested a range of humanized, local messengers against their broader institutional counterparts, and witnessed a 5% average increase in trust across the board[3].

The effect of getting to personally know those with whom you disagree is illustrated by one Citizen Data focus group participant who made this statement at the end of a 90 minute discussion which included lots of different, and at times incompatible, perspectives:

Emphasizing the ways in which other Americans are not only Republicans and Democrats, but also neighbors and friends, who have families and hobbies, who experience hopes and fears can help promote the notion of a shared human experience. It can challenge the tendency to demonize conflicting others and help us to better understand and empathize with them, even while we might continue to disagree.

Data in Action:

Our findings indicate that, while the threat that polarization poses to democracy is significant and should not be underestimated, opportunities do exist to overcome it. The majority of Americans feel either hesitant or open towards the other side, and are willing to talk to them to help reduce division. Humanization – for instance, bringing people into conversation together, or emphasizing non-political identity and character traits – can be helpful to decreasing feelings of hesitancy. Together, these findings have important implications for the ongoing discourse around polarization.

If you would like to learn more, or are interested in partnering with us on a custom research project, please submit a request through our website.

2. Citizen Data survey from November 2023 among a random sample of 3,000 registered voters with a +/-1.8 margin of error. Results are weighted to be broadly representative of a cross section of American voters. Respondents selected from a list of nine feelings, or “none of the above.”
3. Citizen Data survey from November 2023 among a random sample of 3,000 registered voters with a +/-1.8 margin of error. Results are weighted to be broadly representative of a cross section of American voters.

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