Study: American Democracy Under Threat By Partisan Politics That Exploits Psychology Of Fear

Partisanship is fed by how our brains experience hope and fear
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AMHERST, Mass. – Amid an unprecedented democratic decline in the U.S., a new report by Beyond Conflict, co-authored by University of Massachusetts Amherst social psychologist Linda Tropp, analyzes America’s current social divides through the lens of social science to understand how threats – both real and perceived – shape our sense of identity, our feelings of belonging, and our perceptions of status and power relations in society.

All of these effects have downstream impacts on our behavior, the report notes, and ultimately the health of our democracy.

“The United States is changing at the same time that democracy is under threat and driven by the politics of fear,” says Tim Phillips, CEO and founder of Beyond Conflict. “Beyond Conflict has spent the past few years seeking to understand how our psychology is impacted by deepening polarization and how we can be reunited as Americans. We have the capacity as a nation to come together, find common cause and renew our commitment to democracy for generations to come. By having a better understanding of how our minds work, we will be better equipped to recognize that fear and uncertainty are natural human emotions that – just like feelings of hope and security – can be harnessed and deployed to help us envision a shared and more inclusive nation.”

Oriented toward practical interventions, the report, titled "Renewing American Democracy: Navigating A Changing Nation," translates an extensive amount of academic scholarship to clarify how our social identities – and perceived threats to those identities – drive social division and identity-based conflict. Authors explain how the human instinct to align with groups of people who look and think like them, and the reflex to defend those groups against perceived threats, is exploited and leveraged by political actors, decision makers, media conglomerates and other influencers.

“We must pay serious attention to people’s identities as group members and how they perceive threats in relation to those identities,” says Tropp, co-chair of the advisory group convened for the study. “And we must find meaningful ways to reduce those feelings of threat. Otherwise, how can we expect people to be open to others’ perspectives and learn about others’ experiences if they feel threatened by those very others?”

This is the second report from the Americas Divided Mind initiative, which seeks to better understand and address the drivers of social division in the U.S. For the new report, Beyond Conflict convened thought leaders from politics, academia, public policy and the media. A thorough review of the scientific literature was integrated with recommendations developed by think tanks, advocates and civil society coalitions to inform the findings. The report's four identity-related dynamics that are exacerbating social divides and potential pathways for intervention are:

  • Factionalism and partisan sorting. Americans’ political affiliations have become tightly aligned with other salient group identities. Remedies include highlighting identities that cut across partisan differences; creating space to redefine American identity; and normalizing disagreement as central to democracy.
  • Residential segregation and declining social trust. Segregation means that people from different groups are less likely to have first-hand experience with each other, which limits our capacity to counter the influences of divisive messaging. Remedies include increasing openness to engagement across group lines; organizing opportunities for cross-party engagement between citizens and elected officials; and facilitating positive contact among political, racial, ethnic and religious groups.
  • ​​​​​​​ Information echo chambers. The more we live in distinct and divisive information ecosystems that exaggerate a sense of being disliked and dehumanized by the other side, the more inclined we are to support using anti-democratic means to harm people whose views differ from our own. Remedies include correcting Americans’ perceptions about what other people believe; complicating prevailing narrative by challenging sweeping assumptions; engaging media personalities to model new norms for civil discourse; and investing in local reporting and media outlets.
  • Divergent racial attitudes and beliefs about racial equity. Factionalism, bolstered by information echo chambers and residential segregation, drives widely divergent views on racial inequality in America. Remedies include disrupting common narratives and misconceptions about racial progress; discussing real differences in our views and lived experiences; building cross-group, multiracial coalitions; and creating more space for inclusive and multifaceted representations of U.S. history.

“The human brain is not partisan,” says Beyond Conflict program director Michelle Barsa, lead author of the report. “Partisanship is fed by how our brains experience hope and fear. When threats to our partisan identities are manipulated for power, it deepens our psychological instincts to protect our groups and how we see the world. If we want to renew American democracy and strengthen the capacity of Americans to address the fundamental challenges confronting the nation, we must understand the psychology behind the fear and anxiety that drives us apart.”

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