Berkeley political scientists chart a promising course to ease toxic polarization

May 22, 2023

Blue and red photo illustration of people at a rally holding megaphones and waving American flagsThe year was 2020, just a few weeks before the presidential election, when Republican gubernatorial candidate Spencer Cox and Democratic opponent Chris Peterson teamed up to make an unconventional campaign ad. Appearing together on the same screen, they pledged to campaign in a civil, respectful way, and to honor November’s outcome.

In today’s polarized climate, such amiable politics seem not just improbable, but almost startling — and that may be why the ad went viral. But according to new research co-authored at UC Berkeley, such simple bipartisan commitments to the old-fashioned ideals of American democracy may offer a way to ease toxic polarization and increase positive feelings among voters on all sides.

The innovative research, released today (Monday, May 22) in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, found that both Republicans and Democrats expressed strong support for hallmark democratic practices. But support erodes when voters on one side believe their opponents are hostile to those values — and that dynamic can become dangerous when extremist political leaders continually manipulate their followers to believe that opponents are anti-democratic.

However, the researchers found, when suspicious voters learn that their opponents are committed to democracy, they, too, became more committed to democracy and less willing to vote for candidates who violate democratic values.

“You can increase people’s willingness to adhere to democratic norms by lowering their fear of the other side,” said co-author Alia Braley, who is pursuing a Ph.D. at Berkeley.

“Especially in a time when we have such a need for solutions, this has very important implications." 

Read more about the innovative research from Berkeley political scientists at the link below. 

Berkeley News