In the fall of 2017, American politics felt acrimonious, partisan, and messy. In other words, it was politics as usual, or at least the bitterly polarized politics we’ve all grown accustomed to these past several years. Given the rancor, when it came out that President Trump and Congressional Democratic leaders had an unusually positive dinner meeting in September of that year, our interest was piqued.
There is ample evidence from social psychology that positive contact with someone from another group is one of the most effective ways to reduce intergroup animosity. This even works vicariously, by observing a group member interact positively with someone from the other group. As political psychologists who understand the influence of party leaders, we wondered if outward-facing warm relations among key Democrats and Republicans could counteract endless bad news about hostility and interpartisan conflict, and, in this way, reduce partisan animosity.
Depolarizing the American electorate is vital—hostility and distrust between everyday Democrats and Republicans is linked to various negative political and nonpolitical outcomes, including a decline in partisans’ willingness to compromise, reduced trust in government, and a reluctance to do business with, socialize, and even date members of the other party. We are living the consequences of this extreme polarization now, from the violence of the Capitol riots to the worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Is there any way to tamp down this animosity and avoid further violence, mistrust, and hatred? Bipartisanship, in which two oppositional parties compromise on policy, is a popular solution to partisan polarization. But it is difficult to attain when compromise means ceding political ground to the party in power. President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill is just one example of how unreachable compromise seems these days, as it passed the House and Senate along strict party lines with zero support from Congressional Republicans despite the bill’s popular provisions.
Compromising on policy looks increasingly infeasible—neither side wants to be seen as sacrificing their political principles.
The United States needs to come together, but compromising on policy looks increasingly infeasible. Neither side wants to be seen as sacrificing their political principles. But according to our recent research, policy compromise might not be necessary to reduce partisan hostility. Instead, warm social interactions between prominent Republicans and Democrats may actually be a more effective way to dial down partisan animosity among citizens. This might seem surprising if politics is viewed purely in terms of policy gains and losses. It is less surprising if partisan politics is seen as a form of tribal conflict that is inflamed by personal threats and insults.
Kind and civil relations among Congressional Democrats and Republicans might sound like a fantasy in our current political landscape. But it is not as fanciful as it might seem. President Joe Biden has begun to reach out to Republicans in Congress and spoken about the need to reduce partisan animosity. While skeptics doubt that Republicans or ideologically left-leaning Democrats will play ball, our study suggests that Biden’s gesture, if reciprocated, could dial down hostility among everyday Democrats and Republicans, reducing well-established partisan animosity and the potential for political violence.
How we studied partisan polarization
In late 2017 and mid-2018, we conducted two experiments using a mock news story in which then–Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and then–minority leader Chuck Schumer dined together in a Washington restaurant (their roles are now reversed). This news story was altered so that some participants read about a warm meeting and others a hostile encounter between the two senators. In each story, the leaders also independently compromised or failed to compromise on key immigration issues: DACA and funds for building a wall at the Mexican border. In the warm encounter, Schumer and McConnell were seen laughing together over dinner and parting with a hug. In the hostile encounter, they were overheard using obscenities and arguing loudly, and left the restaurant muttering to themselves and shaking their heads.
After reading about the restaurant encounter, respondents answered a series of questions that we used to create a scale of partisans’ attitudes toward their own party and the rival party. Participants rated how warmly they felt toward Democrats and Republicans, how they perceived each group’s personality traits (open or closed, moderate or extreme, and moral or immoral), and how supportive they would be of a close relative marrying a Democrat or Republican.
In the second study, respondents answered the same questions, as well as how often felt they could trust Republicans and Democrats to do what is right for the country. After reading the news story, they also rated how much Democrats respected Republicans, had warm or cold feelings for them, and viewed them as ignorant or knowledgeable (and vice versa). Participants had answered these questions roughly six weeks before reading about the restaurant encounter, allowing us to assess whether views of the other party had shifted after reading the mock news story.
Democrats and Republicans feel better about each other when their leaders get along—not when they compromise
Reading about a warm encounter between Schumer and McConnell consistently boosted positive ratings of the other party. The improvement in ratings is modest in size, which is to be expected—a brief news story is unlikely to reverse strongly held perceptions of American political parties.
When Schumer and McConnell engaged warmly, the other party was also rated as less hostile and negative toward one’s own party. The perception that another group is antagonistic toward members of one’s own group is often a catalyst for intergroup conflict and violence. Our results suggest that political leaders’ public behaviors can help reduce violence among their party members.
Policy compromise did little to change feelings about the other party. In other words, increased agreement with political rivals does not necessarily decrease our dislike of them.
As we expected, the mock news story changed views of the parties’ willingness to compromise—but surprisingly, policy compromise did little to change feelings about the other party. Participants knew where their party stood on building a southern border wall and recognized when the other party shifted toward their party’s stance, but they did not like them any more than if they had not compromised. In other words, increased agreement with political rivals does not necessarily decrease our dislike of them.
Is friendship and warmth among different-party politicians even realistic?
Our results suggest that political leaders can help reduce animosity among American citizens simply by being friendlier when interacting with members of the other party.
Is this even possible in today’s political climate?
In conducting our research, we found that bipartisan friendship persists even in the current divided context. Pennsylvania’s Republican (Pat Toomey) and Democratic (Bob Casey) senators are well known for their bipartisan collaborations. New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker maintains a friendship with former Republican Governor Chris Christie. The weekly Senate prayer breakfast, which brings together Senators of both parties, was cohosted in recent years by Democratic Senator Chris Coons and Republican Senator James Lankford.
Our research suggests that reducing political hostility is possible without giving up our political beliefs.
The problem is that ordinary Americans remain largely unaware of these friendships. The news media could help to solve this problem by advertising friendship and kindness between rival politicians when it occurs, or running an occasional feature story on the existence of bipartisan friendships. They could also replace programs that feature high-decibel partisan disagreement for ones that showcase a civil, warm exchange between key Democrat and Republican leaders. Partisan conflict and hostility may attract viewers in the short term, but it comes with a negative long-term price that we all pay.
Politicians also need to do their part to reduce partisan polarization. This will not be easy. Like some media organizations, some politicians will be reluctant to forego passionate supporters who are attracted to vitriolic political content. Others will be afraid that positive overtures to the other party will result in inevitable backlash.
Joe Biden said in his victory speech, “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again, and to make progress.” Our research suggests that this is possible without giving up our political beliefs. Democracy demands disagreement. It is weakened, however, by partisan hostility, especially when that hostility undermines a basic belief in democracy. Our leaders and those who report on them have an obligation to dial up civility to avoid a further weakening of American democracy.