The Differential Effects of Actual and Perceived Polarization

Adam M. Enders and Miles T. Armaly

Although there is disagreement over the extent of polarization among the American mass public, especially on matters of policy, a growing body of work shows that individuals perceive a wide gulf between their party and members of the out-party. For example, Americans assume that members of the out-party are farther from them on the liberal-conservative continuum than is actually the case. In other words, people perceive more polarization than actually exists.

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.

We begin our analysis by constructing individual-level measures of the two types of polarization using American National Election Studies data from 1972-2012. Importantly, these measures are grounded in the individual, which differs from many conceptualizations of polarization. Instead of determining how far apart an individual views the Democrats from the Republicans, we ask how far apart the individual views herself from the party with which she does not identify. We employ these measures to investigate three sets of relationships. First, we explore the individual-level correlates of each variant of polarization. Second, we examine the effects of perceived and actual polarization on orientations toward the government (i.e., trust and efficacy), voting, and participation in the political process. Finally, we ask how the two types of polarization differentially impact affective evaluations of the parties, candidates, and ideological groups.

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.

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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