Preventing Extreme Polarization of Political Attitudes

Robert Axelrod, Joshua J. Daymude, Stephanie Forrest

Extreme polarization can undermine democracy by making compromise impossible and transforming politics into a zero-sum game. Ideological polarization - the extent to which political views are widely dispersed - is already strong among elites, but less so among the general public (McCarty, 2019, p. 50-68). Strong mutual distrust and hostility between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., combined with the elites' already strong ideological polarization, could lead to increasing ideological polarization among the public. The paper addresses two questions: (1) Is there a level of ideological polarization above which polarization feeds upon itself to become a runaway process? (2) If so, what policy interventions could prevent such a dangerous feedback loop? To explore these questions, we present an agent-based model of ideological polarization that differentiates between the tendency for two actors to interact (exposure) and how they respond when interactions occur, positing that interaction between similar actors reduces their difference while interaction between dissimilar actors increases their difference. Our analysis explores the effects on polarization from different levels of tolerance to other views, responsiveness to other views, exposure to dissimilar actors, multiple ideological dimensions, economic self-interest, and external shocks. The results suggest strategies for preventing, or at least slowing, the development of extreme polarization.

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