New study dissects polarized political climate in the U.S. — and how to fix it

The authors of the study say anti-democratic leaders across the world are convincing their supporters to vote away their political rights.

MAGA sentiments posted in Anchorage, Alaska
MAGA sentiments posted in Anchorage, Alaska. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Campaigns for the 2024 presidential election are in full swing, with several Republican powerhouses entering the race, including former President Donald Trump, former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The crowded field of popular conservatives will be whittled down to one candidate who will likely face President Biden, who has announced his run for reelection. The upcoming election follows a tumultuous presidential race in 2020, which was ripe with false information about election-rigging that caused further distrust among Republicans and Democrats.

A new University of California Berkeley study turns the focus on U.S. voters and found that simple bipartisan commitments to genuine American democracy may offer a way to ease polarization and increase positive feelings on all sides.

The research, published on May 22 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, found that both major parties believe in the democratic process and values. But dysfunction arises when voters on one side believe their opponents are hostile to those values. The study suggests extremist political leaders can manipulate their followers to believe that opponents are anti-democratic.

Then-President Donald Trump speaking to supporters from the Ellipse near the White House on Jan. 6, 2021.
Then-President Donald Trump speaking to supporters from the Ellipse near the White House on Jan. 6, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

“In both groups, we found a very strong relationship. ... People most willing to break the rules of our democracy themselves are also the same people who most fear that the other party [is] breaking the norms,” Gabe Lenz, a professor at UC Berkeley who co-authored the study, told Yahoo News.

He said that many factors have contributed to America’s current political turmoil.

“There’s lots of political science research that suggests that rising inequality has contributed to it and stagnant incomes among people without college degrees. But I think that one factor consistent with our studies that’s underappreciated is that some politicians just excel at creating conflict and creating us versus them situations and fostering misperceptions of the other party,” Lenz said.

There are some examples in the U.S. of positive political discourse, with the study highlighting one from 2020:

A few weeks before the presidential election, Republican gubernatorial candidate Spencer Cox and Democratic opponent Chris Peterson appeared in a joint campaign ad. On screen together, they vowed to campaign in a civil way and to respect the outcome of November’s election result. The ad went viral. Cox ultimately won the race.

Can’t we all just get along?

UC Berkeley professor Alia Braley came up with the idea for the study and co-authored it. She told the Berkeley News: “You can increase people’s willingness to adhere to democratic norms by lowering their fear of the other side.”

One organization was founded to do just that. A nonprofit called Braver Angels stages encounters and debates all over the country, known as Red/Blue Workshops, as a way to reduce political polarization.

In one debate in a conservative Texas town, eight Republicans and eight Democrats sat at a table and were tasked with holding civil discourse. They were to hear each other’s side and find common ground. A local journalist witnessing it believed it was a helpful tool for discourse.

“We got started right after the 2016 election,” Ciaran O'Connor, chief marketing officer for Braver Angels, told Yahoo News. “The goal was to see, can we bring together people who voted for Trump and people who voted for Hillary, could we bring them together in a constructive way where they could actually talk with, rather than simply at or about one another. And so, we’ve designed our first workshop based on principles of family and couples therapy.”

Voter trust: the ‘subversion dilemma’

The study highlights a theory that it called the “subversion dilemma”: people who want to live in a democracy might tolerate “defection by their representatives to save democracy from their opponents.” Essentially, if citizens think one side allows their representatives to act anti-democratic, then they might have incentive to let their leaders commit similar acts.

“Around the world, anti-democratic leaders are convincing their supporters to vote away their political rights,” the study purports.

“While 78% of the world’s population reports wanting to live in a representative democracy, democracies continue to erode, with 70% of the population living in autocracies,” the study says. “Citizens in Venezuela, Turkey and Hungary strongly endorsed democracy while casting votes for authoritarian leaders Chávez, Erdoğan and Orbán, respectively.”

Donald Trump
Trump greets supporters at an event in Grimes, Iowa, June 1. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It also mentioned President Trump, who continues to spread falsehoods about Democrats rigging elections, a claim that’s been conclusively disproven. For instance, in 2016, he repeatedly said the election was rigged before it even happened.

Then, on Jan. 6, 2021, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to block Biden’s win in the 2020 election. After the attack, dozens of Republican congresspeople still voted against decertifying the results of the presidential race.

“This rhetoric probably contributed to the Capitol attack and to the widespread belief among Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen,” the study added.

But the study also takes aim at Democrats, noting a tweet from progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019, “Well, it’s official: Republicans are now arguing that the US isn’t (& shouldn’t be) a democracy. This is what they believe. From lobbyists writing their bills to sabotaging our civil rights, the GOP works to end democracy,” and in 2020, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “Health care. Reproductive Freedom. Workers’ rights. Dreamers’ futures. Our planet. Democracy. Everything is on the line—so everything is on the table.”

The authors believe rebuilding trust and a sense of shared goodwill is key to combating the volatility.

Election misinformation and the solution

“The majority of people on both sides believe that they're the ones protecting democracy. I think you have political leaders or like, cynical people, manipulating people,” O’Connor said.

“But I think the majority of people believe in democracy, but they’ve been convinced through media that it’s the other side that wants to take away their rights or steal the election,” he added. “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.”

Joe Biden
President Biden at a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

A hypothesis stemming from the study suggests that somehow reducing fears that the opposing side will violate democratic norms could lead voters to choose candidates who uphold these principles, not tear them down. But that won’t be easy.

“In our survey data, we see ample signs that Republicans want to protect democracy and that they are open to information that Democrats want to do the same. Republicans may therefore be open to this messaging and these signals, much more so than many Democrats assume,” the study concluded.