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Why American politics is so stuck – and what new research shows how to fix it

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We call this tendency the partisan trade-off bias, and it applies to both parties. For a democrat, the purpose of an environmental policy that reduces CO2 emissions, for example, is to protect the environment, and a corresponding loss of jobs in coal mining is an unfortunate side effect. But a Republican, our research finds, could be looking at the same policies and seeing a conspiracy to eliminate jobs in the fossil fuel industry. In the meantime, a Democrat might assume that a Republican push to cut corporate tax rates will serve the rich and harm the poor rather than stimulate economic growth.

Of course, it is sometimes appropriate to be skeptical about the motives. But often it is misguided, and the deeper it goes, the harder it is to get something through the political decision-making process. Until politicians find a way to mitigate the effects of the partisan trade-off bias, we are likely to continue to see stalemates on major political issues.

We documented the partisan trade-off bias in five studies using online samples from a total of 1,236 participants, a mix of Republicans and Democrats. As an example, in one of our studies, participants were randomly assigned to see a number of policy compromises, some proposed by the Republicans and some by the Democrats. The guidelines dealt with taxes, environmental regulations, gun control and voting rights. Participants then rated how aware they were of the negative side effects of each guideline. The more participants identified with the Republican Party, the more aware they were of the side effects of the policy proposed by the Democrats, and the more participants identified with the Democratic Party, the more aware they were of the side effects of the policy proposed by the Republicans.

In summary, our studies have shown that the negative side effects of various political compromises are not interpreted by opponents as side effects at all, but rather as intended political goals.

The political science literature has so far shown that political polarization means that partisans not only dislike each other, but also increasingly see the other side as a threat to the country. Our identification of partisan trade-off bias reveals a psychological bias that may help explain this threat perception. After all, how can you get along with someone who you believe is deliberately trying to cause harm?

The good news is that by identifying the partisan trade-off bias, our research shows a way forward: Policymakers who pay more attention to this bias may be better equipped to compromise. This means that they must not only focus on the main objective of a policy, but clearly convey to the public what is intended and what is an unfortunate side effect of that objective.

Fortunately, our studies also suggest that this might be achievable. The partisan trade-off bias arises not because people don’t understand a particular policy, but because they don’t trust the policymakers who drive that policy. We found that a person’s trust in a policy maker who proposes a policy is a critical factor in the bias. And when we were able to increase people’s trust in political decision-makers in our studies, we found that the partisan trade-off bias has decreased significantly.

Existing research suggests that politicians can win the trust of others in many ways, but one of the most powerful is also the simplest: making sure people feel their voices are being heard and heard before a directive is announced, including of those who tend to like or dislike a guideline. When we told participants in our studies that a policymaker was speaking with stakeholders from all sides of the political spectrum before putting forward a proposal, the partisan compromise bias subsided.

In practice, these results suggest that announcing a major political goal and then conducting press trips and campaigns to publicize its benefits is unlikely to do much to build trust. What happens before the policy is announced is critical to gaining broad support for the policy. Politicians need to make it clear that they are speaking and listening to those who are likely to be affected by the side effects of a policy. For example, as part of a climate change policy, a politician can visit coal miners in West Virginia or oil and gas workers in Texas while they work out a plan to reduce emissions. The more broadly the politician can promote these efforts – across multiple types of media and across the ideological spectrum – the better.

Giving people a voice in this process does not mean that they will change their minds about the value of politics. But it increases the chances that they will see politics as a sincere attempt to solve problems, rather than a form of hidden malice. This, in turn, can help lower the temperature and de-escalate the polarization cycle. The same lesson applies to those of us who are not policymakers but ordinary citizens who want to have better conversations about politics. If you think you know the other party’s real intentions, think again. What you consider malice may be an unintended side effect. And if you want someone to help you when in doubt, make an effort to make them heard before you do.

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