The easiest cure for political distrust

Americans who perceive anti-democratic – even dangerous – behavior in the opposing party may not really “see one another.”

The light in the cupola of the Capitol Dome is illuminated, indicating that work continues in Congress, Oct. 6.

Nine months into the Biden presidency and a new but divided Congress, the political debate in the United States may be going far beyond policy issues, such as money for what has long been a bipartisan favorite, transportation infrastructure. In a new survey, more than half of both Biden and Trump voters view elected officials from the opposing party as “presenting a clear and present danger to American democracy.” More than 40% on each side say the same about anyone who strongly supports the opposing party.

These are merely perceptions, of course, but they play out in Washington with attacks on the alleged motives of individual lawmakers who hold up legislation. Such outliers in Congress are charged with anti-democratic behavior, or a violation of basic governing principles. Among voters, more than two-thirds say those in the opposing party want to eliminate the influence of progressive or traditional values in American life and culture, according to the same poll, which was conducted for the University of Virginia and Project Home Fire in July and August.

The choice of language also can get strident. A majority of Democrats say Republicans are fascists. A majority of Republicans see Democrats as socialists.

These sorts of mass beliefs about the democratic credentials of fellow Americans can hardly be ignored. “Simply put – we need a real plan to heal our fractured democracy,” says Larry Schack of Project Home Fire, an initiative to find common ground in politics.

One plan is to ask if such beliefs about what others believe are true. Probably not, say researchers from The New School for Social Research, Brown University, the University of Bath, and the University of Pennsylvania.

“Polls show that both Democrats and Republicans highly value democratic principles,” the researchers write. “Both Democrats and Republicans ... severely underestimate opposing party members’ support for those same characteristics.”

In other words, Americans are caught in a partisan misjudgment of each other. “In turn,” the study finds, “this discrepancy may fuel a downward spiral of democratic practice.”

That last point does not always play out in Congress. Despite polarization among lawmakers, there has been no increase in the share of legislation enacted on party-line votes since 2011, according to political scientists James Curry at the University of Utah and Frances Lee at Princeton University. Majority parties have sought out substantial support of the minority for major bills.

In his inaugural address in January, President Joe Biden urged Americans to “see one another.” As president, he has not always lived up to that calling to see the truth about others. But neither have many Americans. The reality is that voters do share core democratic values.

The simplest truth is often the easiest cure.

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