Many Americans think that the country is politically polarized, with fewer and fewer shared values and common interests to build common ground. Only a small share (15%) say that Americans have a lot in common with each other (More in Common, 2018). Public perception of a divided America has increased substantially over the past decades and is expected to last for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, we do not know enough about its effects on our society, particularly its effects besides those related to political variables.
This study examines whether these widespread perceptions of polarization harm Americans’ trust in each other. I focus on perceived polarization, i.e., the extent to which one sees the nation as polarized, rather than actual ideological or affective polarization, which refers to adopting more extreme issue attitudes or polarized feelings toward political groups.
Perceived polarization is not the same as actual polarization. First, most Americans across the political spectrum—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—exhibit high perceptions of polarization (PRRI, 2019), which makes perceived polarization a more general and widespread phenomenon. People may view the country as politically polarized without having polarized attitudes themselves, although polarized attitudes can amplify perceptions of polarization (Westfall et al., 2015). Second, perceived polarization tends to be extreme and exaggerated. Many see the country as more severely polarized than it actually is—the perceived level of polarization can be twice as large as its actual level (Levendusky & Malhotra, 2016a).
Perceived polarization is as important a phenomenon as actual polarization, if not more. Perception of polarization exceeds actual polarization, and importantly, it can affect citizen attitudes and behavior, independent of actual polarization (Enders & Armaly, 2019). People’s own perceptions of a given phenomenon are powerful in shaping their attitudes, often more so than actual, objective reality (van Setten et al., 2017).
Past research on the effects of perceived polarization has primarily focused on political outcomes. For example, perceived polarization is found to intensify negative feelings toward those of the other party (Levendusky & Malhotra, 2016b). On ideological polarization, the results are mixed; some studies find that it depolarizes issue attitudes (Levendusky & Malhotra, 2016b), while others find it drives attitude extremity (Ahler, 2014). Additionally, perceived polarization is associated with lower political trust and efficacy and higher political participation (Enders & Armaly, 2019).
This study demonstrates that perceived polarization has broader consequences, beyond the political sphere. Specifically, I focus on how it affects trust in other members of society, called generalized social trust. As discussed above, social trust is conceptually different from political trust or institutional trust, which refers to one’s confidence in political institutions, authorities, and systems (Uslaner, 2002).
Generalized social trust also differs from trust in family, friends, and other personal contacts (personalized trust) and from trust in those who share similar characteristics (ingroup trust). Rather, it is a generalized belief about what “most people” are like, including those whom one does not know and those different from oneself (Delhey et al., 2011; Uslaner, 2002). This trust is based on the belief that most people have good intentions and adhere to a set of norms shared within society. Our society teaches us the values of honesty and integrity, so we are provided with common moral codes that prescribe good behaviors. When it comes to anonymous fellow citizens, trusting them means we expect them, even absent personal familiarity, to abide by and act as per shared norms (Fukuyama, 1995; Offe, 1999).
This generalized trust in other people plays a particularly important role as societies become more anonymous and heterogeneous. Many of our daily interactions require us to trust people we know little, and generalized social trust increases people’s comfort levels when dealing with strangers for productive exchange (Offe, 1999). Social trust is what makes “social interactions in complex, diversified societies work” (Stolle, 2002, 399). Trust encourages people to engage with those who are personally unfamiliar and different and to cooperate for mutual benefit (Brooks, 2005; Sønderskov, 2009).
Why, then, would perceived polarization undermine Americans’ trust in each other? Research suggests that generalized social trust is generally lower in societies divided along salient cleavages, such as race, ethnicity, and social class (Alesina & La Ferrara, 2002; Bjørnskov, 2007; Delhey & Newton, 2005; Dinesen & Sønderskov, 2015; Uslaner & Brown, 2005). Whether these divisions are based on racial or economic differences, scholars posit a similar explanation of why they are detrimental to social trust: they decrease the sense of shared values and common belonging among members of society, leaving them feeling less connected with one another (Delhey & Newton, 2005; Rothstein & Uslaner, 2005).
Similarity breeds trust, as people are naturally inclined to trust those with similar attitudes and values (Byrne, 1961). The belief that fellow citizens share common values fosters trust and allows this trust to be generalized to society as a whole (Offe, 1999). In fact, social trust is higher when there is more agreement than disagreement among citizens on key values, such as the role of government and moral issues (Beugelsdijk & Klasing, 2016; Rapp, 2016).
Dissimilarity and discord, conversely, engender feelings of mistrust. Studies have shown the significance of actual and perceived social divisions in fueling distrust (Delhey & Newton, 2003). The greater the perceived divisions over core values regarding how society should function, the less likely individuals are to feel that they belong to the same “community” (Delhey & Newton, 2005). Tensions arising from such differences render it difficult to promote social trust, especially if divisions are salient.
Political polarization is a form of social division not previously examined in relation to Americans’ social trust. While past research has explored the role of social divisions based on racial/ethnic, economic, and cultural grounds in eroding social trust, the rise of political polarization warrants the need to investigate whether political divisions have similar adverse effects. Specifically, this study focuses on the public perception of polarization as an indicator of social division and examines whether it undermines social trust.
Some might say that perceived polarization should have little net effect on social trust if it is guided by political group identity; that is, to the extent that it decreases one’s trust in those with different political views, its impact could be offset by it increasing one’s trust in those who are politically similar. I argue, however, that this may not be the case. First, trust in most people, i.e., generalized social trust, does not necessarily indicate how much one trusts people of a particular group, i.e., ingroup-outgroup trust. Since generalized social trust extends to those without similar backgrounds, there is some overlap with outgroup trust, in that both have to do with how one views unfamiliar and dissimilar others.
Nonetheless, social trust and group-based trust are different concepts; outgroup trust is based on group identity and thus directed at particular outgroup members, whereas the targets for generalized social trust are much broader (Freitag & Bauer, 2013). Generalized social trust is not about any particular social/political group. Rather, it is an abstract attitude toward others in general, i.e., the “average” person in the population (Robinson & Jackson, 2001).
Furthermore, even if perceived polarization allows political identity to influence social trust, there are still several reasons to expect that it could undermine one’s overall level of trust in others regardless of their political backgrounds. Thus, it reduces trust in the average American.
Due to perceived polarization, individuals might become detached from both sides of the political spectrum as they see growing extremism and intolerance on both sides. Most Americans are fed up with polarization in both political parties and the inability to find common ground (More in Common, 2018). This is most likely to be true for Independents, but even for partisans, polarization can make neither side look good. In fact, many party supporters report feeling less warmth toward their own party as polarization has risen (Groenendyk, 2018). They dislike the other party, but many nonetheless seem to disapprove of—or, at least feel ambivalent about—the direction their party is headed, i.e., ideological extremity.
Polarization and extremism conflict with the broadly shared social norms of moderation and compromise deemed positive in American society. Few like to think of themselves as extreme (Hetherington & Rudolph, 2015), and close-mindedness and inflexibility are likewise regarded negatively (Klar & Krupnikov, 2016). But when thinking about the people out there, frequent media coverage of polarization makes people believe that more and more Americans today embrace polarized, extreme, and intolerant views, on both the left and right (Levendusky & Malhotra, 2016b). People tend to view such individuals as typical of the majority of ordinary voters, while considering themselves not like them; further, people express negative views of those espousing extreme and rigid views, not just in the other party but also in their own party (Levendusky & Malhotra, 2016b).
In other words, as people believe typical Americans are becoming more polarized and close-minded, such perceptions should induce feelings of distance and estrangement from fellow citizens and society in general. This can result in the erosion of social trust.