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Reducing partisan divide alone does not boost support for democracy, study finds

Ending anti-democratic attitudes not so easy stateside, researchers claim

Researchers have found that working to reduce emotional partisan attitudes across the US political divide does not reduce anti-democratic tendencies.

In a study published in Nature Human Behaviour this week, social scientists claim that depolarization interventions have no measurable effect on reducing anti-democratic attitudes including support for undemocratic candidates, support for partisan violence or prioritizing partisan ends over democratic means.

Through social media, internet-based technologies have over 10 years or more seemed to play a role in increasing political polarization and partisanship, in part through the promotion of influencer views. Gone are the early days of the world wide web, when enthusiasts assumed it would bring people together and fuel greater political participation.

"Research shows that contemporary US politics is characterized by growing affective polarization [the tendency for partisans to dislike and distrust those from the other party]. Notably, not only academics but also a large majority of Americans believe the country is extremely divided and view this division as a serious problem," the study said.

"It's presumed negative consequences may be uniquely harmful or destabilizing for democratic societies, for example, by stimulating support for undemocratic candidates and practices, or by fomenting political violence."

Although a body of research has pointed toward effective methods in reducing polarized partisan attitudes, the assumed benefit of increasing support for democracy had not been measured.

A team led by Jan Voelkel, Stanford University PhD student, carried out a battery of experimental tests on 8,385 subjects, measuring the effectiveness of three previously established depolarization interventions: correcting misperceptions of people outside the partisan group; priming inter-partisan friendships; and observing warm cross-partisan interactions between political leaders.

Although the result showed these techniques did indeed help reduce negative attitudes between partisan groups, they did not reduce anti-democratic tendencies.

"Our findings call into question whether depolarization interventions developed to reduce affective polarization also reduce anti-democratic attitudes," the paper said. "Across three experiments, we successfully replicate previous research, finding that three depolarization interventions reliably reduced self-reported affective polarization… Critically, however, the depolarization interventions did not reliably reduce any of three measures of anti-democratic attitudes: support for undemocratic candidates, support for partisan violence, and prioritizing partisan ends over democratic means."

The authors said that any future work should avoid making assumptions about any consequences of reducing partisan division among the US population.

"Researchers and practitioners who are interested in interventions targeting anti-democratic attitudes… should not focus on treating affective polarization and begin developing more direct interventions – trends that run counter to most current work," they said.

The US mid-terms are scheduled for next week, giving an opportunity to 250 million Americans that are eligible to vote to express their view of the Biden administration, and provide clarity on the Republicans can retake control of the House of Representativers and the Senate. ®

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