By Samara Klar
Party identification is one of the most important determinants of what people think and the decisions they make. In fact, previous scholars have found that whether you identify as a Democrat or a Republican can influence your opinions on the economy, your preferred policy positions, and even your perception of a candidate’s skin color. Most often, political scientists note that Democrats are unduly critical of Republicans’ ideas and Republicans are similarly unforgiving toward Democrats. This large body of work seems to suggest that there is no hope for bipartisan compromise.
But what happens when Democrats and Republicans actually meet in person and discuss politics informally? We know that, in reality, this happens all the time. Politics tends to pop up in conversations when you least expect it – and not always with people who necessarily agree with you. Can these interpersonal interactions help to bridge the divide between Democrats and Republicans?
To find out how face-to-face discussions between Democrats and Republicans affect individuals’ opinions, I conducted an experiment in which I randomly assigned participants to one of three group settings: the first group was composed of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans who were asked to sit together to discuss a few political issues; the second group was composed only of like-minded partisans who were asked to sit together to discuss the same issues; and the third group of individuals were instructed to sit silently at their computer stations without discussing politics with anyone around them.
I also manipulated the strength of each individual’s partisan attachment. For the “strong party” treatment, I first asked individuals to write down a few reasons why they like their own party, and a few reasons why they dislike the opponent. For the “weak party” treatment, I asked them to instead consider criticisms they might have against their own party.
Then, the individuals in the discussion groups began to chat with one another about two particular policy issues: energy policy and health care. The individuals sitting quietly in the third group instead read about policy issues on their computer screens.
Once the discussions were over, I asked every participant to silently complete an anonymous survey that asked for their opinions on issues and the degree to which they enjoyed the activity in which they had just participated.
The results demonstrated a few important and surprising conclusions: individuals who had engaged in ideologically-diverse discussions moderated their opinions toward a more bipartisan position and expressed the highest level of satisfaction with their group. They also were most likely to request another ideologically-diverse group for future discussions.
Those who had discussed politics only with their co-partisans, on the other hand, became more extreme and polarized in their opinions — as did those who had engaged in no group discussions at all.
I wanted to ensure that even individuals with the strongest party attachments experienced the same transformation as a result of the diverse discussions. Indeed, even participants who had undergone the strong partisan treatment expressed bipartisan preferences as a result of diverse discussion.
This experiment allowed me to demonstrate that Democrats and Republicans do indeed express divergent views and disdain for one another – but these negative outcomes can be dramatically reduced, and even reversed, with the help of a little face-to-face interaction.
About the author: Samara Klar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy. Her article “Partisanship in a Social Setting” appeared in the July 2014 issue of the American Journal of Political Science. Replication files for this study are available at the AJPS Dataverse Archive (http://thedata.harvard.edu/dvn/dv/ajps).