In his recent study, Ethan Busby, assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, uncovered a slew of stereotypes surrounding political parties.
When asked to describe individuals from a specific party, people were quick to identify hobbies, religions, races, traits, and viewpoints that those individuals would be associated with. These results made it apparent that Americans often place people in a box once they know which political party they affiliate with.
“There is space for us to be polarized in some ways while agreeing that democracy is something that we want,” says Busby, “ that is something we [as researchers] are still exploring; what kinds of partisan polarization are democratically bad? It’s more complex than just saying all polarization is bad all the time.”
Busby shares three ways to look beyond partisan stereotypes and work towards reducing extreme polarization.
1) View those who are ideologically different in terms of politics rather than as genetically different.
“People tend to become more polarized when they think of the parties as their own intrinsic group — not just in what they believe, but who they are and what things define them,” says Busby. It is these types of distinctions that create gaps between us.
Pretending that all people are the same is not the solution. Instead, we should acknowledge that the political parties differ in terms of ideals. Busby reasons, “If we care about reducing polarization we ought to focus on getting people to acknowledge differences between themselves and to think of those differences in terms of politics [rather than] as a group of terrible people who are fundamentally, almost genetically, different. That kind of thinking promotes less polarization.”
2) Use social media as an opportunity to connect with people who are different from you rather than to reinforce your own opinions.
With the rise of social media, political extremes can seem prominent. However, while most people are enmeshed in social media, Busby is hesitant to blame social media for upward trends in polarization. “People have been polarized before social media and will be polarized long after we move on to something different. And so I do not think it is the source.”
According to the Digital 2021 Report, there are 4.2 billion active social media users around the globe. The majority of those users are online to follow the news or be entertained. Busby highlights that “what is most harmful about social media is it gives us a distorted picture of what people are like. Not everybody talks about politics, and the only people who are talking about politics on social media tend to be people who are strongly motivated by what they think. Most people are not going along with political diatribes on social media.”
The people we tend to follow on social media are ideologically similar to us. “We live in very homogeneous groups,” says Busby, “but we could use social media to connect with people who are very different from us.” Social media can be a tool for us to understand people who value different things than us, especially in politics. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide whether or not they want to take his recommendation to invest in understanding those around them who are different.
3) Acknowledge that sometimes we do not understand each other well and work towards greater understanding.
Busby stresses the need to take the time to understand those who are politically different from us.
We must see them first as human beings and second as individuals who are motivated by different political issues.
Busby expresses, “I might not agree with them on those issues, I might think that they are fundamentally wrong on those issues. But they are not categorically different kinds of people. You do not have to agree with someone to make them feel like you’ve heard them.”
Active listening fosters trust and leads to conflict resolution. “If we can feel like other people understand us, then we understand them. We make progress together and handle conflict better.”
About our university campus, Busby shared, “I want BYU to be a beloved community. We should be committed to it. It starts with acknowledging that sometimes we don’t understand each other well. We must be willing to admit that and take the simple step of trying to listen to people before we talk to them, especially in groups that we don’t hear from as much as we should. Try to find ways to listen to people who are not being listened to.”
Learn more about the BYU Political Science program.
Dr. Busby studies political psychology and specializes in extremism, public opinion, racial and ethnic politics, and quantitative methods. He recently published two books with Cambridge University Press: “The Partisan Next Door: Stereotypes of Party Supporters and Consequences for Polarization in America” and “Should You Stay Away from Strangers?: Experiments on the Political Consequences of Intergroup Contact.” Busby earned a Ph.D. in political science from Northwestern University and spent two years as an assistant professor at Clemson University. In 2020, he returned to teach at the alma mater of his undergraduate education and the institution he’s had a lifelong relationship with — his father Dean Busby is a professor in the BYU School of Family Life and now his wife Andrea Kinghorn Busby has joined that department as an assistant professor. In his free time, Busby enjoys grilling and smoking meat, listening to audiobooks, singing with his wife in a gospel choir, walking his dog, and biking.