Stop. We’re both wrong.

It’s safe to say then that the more you harbor acrimony toward your political foes, the greater chance that you’re just flat-out…wrong.

Here are a few examples:

  • The average Democrat believes that more than 40 percent of Republicans earn more than $250,000 per year. The fact is only 2 percent of Republicans are doing that well. The average Republican believes that nearly 40 percent of Democrats are LGBTQ. The truth is 6 percent of Democrats are LGBTQ.
  • A strong majority of Republicans believe that properly controlled immigration can be good for the country. A strong majority of Democrats disagree that the United States should have completely open borders.
  • Those holding extreme views on immigration are a minority in both parties, even though Republicans think a majority of Democrats believe in open borders while Democrats think a majority of Republicans believe immigration is bad for the United States.

The perception gap is 33 percentage points on each side. And that is the perception gap for the average Democrat or Republican.

In general, strong partisans—progressive activists and devoted conservatives —are most inaccurate in their perceptions of the other side, reaching a gap of more than 45 percentage points on extremely divisive issues. 

The group with the smallest perception gap are those who consider themselves politically disengaged.

Thus, it’s not surprising that people who consume news media “most of the time” are almost three times as inaccurate in their understanding of others’ views as those who consume news “only now and then”.

Almost all news sources contribute to the perception gap to some degree, the notable exception are the major news networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. Ranking the outlets from worst to least bad are Breitbart, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity ranking topping the chart as influencing misperception the most, followed closely by left-leaning outlets like Slate, Daily Kos and Huffington Post. Not lagging far behind (and interestingly, ranking above social media), are the New York Times and Washington Post. Social media appears next and Fox News lands somewhere in the middle, above local news, MSNBC, CNN and above religious news services.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, education doesn’t make your perceptions more accurate.

While in general more education results in a wider perception gap, it only gets worse among well-educated Democrats, with whom the gap gets worse with every additional degree earned. In fact, Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate when it comes to perceptions about Republicans than those with a postgraduate degree.

A major contributing factor to the perception gap is a phenomenon called “motive attribution asymmetry”: the belief that I am motivated by love but you are motivated by hatred. Today, more than 90 percent of both Republicans and Democrats describe people in their own party as “honest,” “reasonable” and “caring.” Meanwhile, more than 80 percent in each party describe the other side as “brainwashed” and “hateful.” This gross misperception on both sides only fans partisan flames and sadly—and to the detriment of the country—does so needlessly.

According to Arthur C. Brooks, professor of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, in a column in the Washington Post, “Real and consequential differences separate Americans, but the more divided we get, the more mistakes we make. For example, Democrats estimate that about half of Republicans would admit that racism is still a problem in the United States, when in reality 79 percent of Republicans say so. Republicans, meanwhile, think fully half of Democrats would say that “most police are bad people.” The actual percentage is 15 percent.”

If it’s true we can only really change ourselves, we can start by admitting that unless a) we’re completely disengaged from any political discourse or activity or b) we typically stay off social media and only watch network news channels, then we’re probably wrong about “the other side” and what most of them think, who they are, and what they want.

Sources: 2019 Study by Daniel Yudkin, Stephen Hawkins, Tim Dixon published in More in Common called The Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart; 2017 Study in the Journal of Politics; Washington Post article by Arthur C.Brooks, July 26, 2019 called “You’re probably making incorrect assumptions about your opposing political party”.

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