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Column: We’re not as divided as we think
Shannon Casas
Shannon Casas

The Dumbocrats want to destroy the country. They want to take away all our guns and open up our borders, letting anyone and everyone, including violent criminals, just walk right on across.  

The Republicants must be OK with children dying because why else would they be against gun control and fine with putting children in cages at the border? 

The two parties are a chasm apart on these and all sorts of other issues. They lob grenades across the chasm trying to destroy those on the other side. Compromise is a bad word. And what would be the point of trying anyway, given that wide, deep ideological chasm? 

Except they’re not so far apart on the issues as they think. 

study by Beyond Conflict shows the parties’ perceived positions on immigration. Respondents were asked to estimate how the average member of the other party would rate their views on immigration between completely open and completely closed borders. The perception was most Republicans support completely closed borders and most Democrats support completely open borders. The graph of the responses literally shows a chasm between the two sides.  

When respondents were asked to rate their own views on immigration between those two extremes, the chasm disappears. The opposing sides aren’t nearly as opposed as they think. The perception of disagreement on the issue is about twice as large as the actual disagreement. 

The study calls what's now happening in our country “toxic polarization.” 

“Once we adopt the lens of “Us vs. Them,” a range of unconscious psychological processes take root that accelerate toxic polarization and distort the ways we see one another and understand the world around us,” it states in the executive summary. “When this mindset develops, compromise with the other side is viewed as weakness or betrayal, and their gain is seen as our loss.” 

The study was published in June and the research project began in 2018. Beyond Conflict is a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on applying brain science to reduce conflict and increase tolerance. You can learn more about them and the study at beyondconflictint.org. There’s a link at the top to the polarization report. 

We’ve all seen this toxic polarization on opinion programming on TV and radio, on social media and even in the letters to the editor on the pages of this newspaper. 

Another finding of this study: Democrats believe Republicans dehumanize, dislike and disagree with Democrats about twice as much as they actually do. Same goes for Republicans’ beliefs about Democrats. 

Another study found this perception gap. More in Common’s findings at perceptiongap.us are this: “Almost two-thirds of Americans describe themselves as either Democrats or Republicans, and with every passing year each side seems to dislike the other more and more. We trust each other less, we fear each other more, and we struggle to understand how those on the other side of the political fence could possibly hold so many wrong-headed views.”  

The Perception Gap specifically includes data on consumption of media. Only one media source it studied lessened this perception gap: traditional television sources including ABC, CBS and NBC. Watching CNN increases the perception gap. Watching MSNBC, the same. Reading newspapers like the Wallstreet Journal, increases the gap.  

Consuming local media, including TV, radio and newspapers increases it. Obviously, the quality and content of the media matters and there are exceptions to the rule. Lumping all local media together seems a bit unfair given the vast differences in the ways local TV, radio and news often operate and the difference between a major metro market and smaller one. 

Not surprisingly, consuming media from strongly right- or left-leaning media including Daily Kos or radio programs like Rush Limbaugh widen the perception gap at the highest levels. 

One surprising finding in this report is that education seems to worsen the perception gap. In fact, for Democrats, the more degrees they have, the worse the perception gap. That doesn’t hold true for Republicans, according to the study. 

Meanwhile percentages of those in both parties calling the other “brainwashed,” “hateful” and “racist” is upward of 80% except for Republicans calling Democrats racist, which is only at 71%. 

I don’t believe educating ourselves less or ignoring media is the answer. More in Common had a few common-sense suggestions.  

  • Consume a wider range of news sources. Again, seek out those with varying viewpoints. It’s OK to watch Fox and CNN. You can yell at both channels if you want. Personally, I prefer the more in-depth journalism often found in print media, though some TV programs will take a deep dive into topics. 

  • Stop following social media feeds that amplify the extremes. 

  • Talk to one another. The key here is to talk with those who think differently -- and ideally not over social media. Safety guidelines may prevent some of that, but whenever you can, really engage in a conversation rather than assuming you know the other person’s beliefs because it seems most of our perceptions about “them” are wrong. 

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. 

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