How Our Political Parties See Each Other
Republicans think that almost 40 percent of Democrats belong to labor unions. In fact, only about 11 percent do.
Republicans also believe 32 percent are part of the LGBT community when in reality only 6 percent describe themselves in those terms. Democrats, for their part, also have distorted notions about Republicans. Almost 40 percent, for example, think Republicans earn more than $250,000 a year. In fact, only 2 percent of members of the GOP make that much money. Democrats think 40 percent of Republicans are over 65. Actually, only half that many are that old.
The study that revealed these inaccurate stereotypes also found that Republicans and Democrats alike exaggerate the characteristics of other members of their own political party. Lower- and middle-class Republicans think their party is composed of people much richer than they are. Black Democrats think that 52 percent of all Democrats are black, when in fact only 25 percent fit that description. Even white and Latino Democrats think there is a higher percentage of black Democrats — 35 percent — than is the case.
And these revelations aren’t just evidence that people are uninformed. “Americans who are most interested in politics hold the most skewed perceptions of party composition,” according to Florida State’s Douglas J. Ahler, who conducted the study. Quoting earlier research, Ahler notes that about a third of party members consider the party to which they don’t belong “a threat to our nation’s well-being.” The idea of a family member marrying someone from the wrong party, Ahler writes, leaves about a third of Americans feeling “aghast.” Political parties are “sociopolitical brands,” Ahler concludes, and have become “pictures in our heads,” as Walter Lippmann wrote in his 1922 classic Public Opinion.
Resentment and Cynicism
These pictures in our heads affect our political behavior, and rarely to the good. “For instance,” Ahler writes, “believing that a third of Democrats are atheist or agnostic, or that half of Republicans are evangelical, may lead one to believe that cultural issues like school prayer are far more important to the parties than they actually are. More generally, we suspect that people associate a narrow set of policy demands with each party-stereotypical group and think these groups have sway over the party’s agenda. This is liable to fuel more resentment and cynicism about the motivation of party elites.”
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