New Polarization Research Lab to Study Political Animosity in the U.S.

The lab will create a free, interactive data dashboard that tracks polarization in real-time.

By Amy D. Olson, Dartmouth News

To understand where partisan animosity comes from and what can be done to address it, researchers from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, and Stanford University have teamed up to launch the Polarization Research Lab.

Survey and experimental data show that average citizens often don’t understand the political positions of their party or follow current debates in Washington. Many now hate and are willing to discriminate against those of the opposing party. Americans hold more negative views toward the political opposition than at any point in the last 50 years, with polarization spilling over into completely apolitical aspects of day-to-day life. Yet, we don’t know what is causing these changes in American society.

The nonpartisan lab, directed at the Annenberg School by Associate Professor Yphtach Lelkes, will focus on three interconnected phenomena: affective polarization (or the extent to which individuals like their own party and strongly dislike the other), support for the violation of democratic norms, and support for political violence.

Read a Q&A with Lelkes about the lab and what it will study.

"The attitudes of a citizenry serve as the foundation of a stable democracy,” says Lelkes. “At a time when it often feels like America is on a precipice, it's more urgent than ever that we monitor and understand these attitudes." 

Consider how affective polarization might impact your behavior: would you accept your son or daughter marrying a partner of the opposing party? Would you hire someone who doesn’t share your political beliefs? How willing would you be to accept deviation from democratic norms by policymakers to advance your party’s goals?

As part of its work, the Polarization Research Lab plans to conduct the largest survey investigation of partisan animosity in America, to date. Through 156,000 survey interviews over the next three years, the lab will track how citizen attitudes vary over time and how they correspond to the actions of federally elected officials (“elites”). This will enable the researchers to track how elite animosity causes citizen animosity, how major news events may cause citizen animosity, and how these things may work together.

The lab will merge public opinion data with elite rhetoric. To capture elite rhetoric, the lab will track and categorize all political tweets, press releases, floor speeches, and media appearances by federal elected officials, using machine learning techniques.

Yphtach Lelkes
Yphtach Lelkes, Ph.D.

“Simultaneously tracking elite rhetoric and public opinion gets us closer to understanding both the causes and the effects of mass polarization,” says Lelkes. “If, as we suspect, policymakers, and cable news pundits are driving dynamics in polarization, we can design interventions that change how people consume such polarizing information.”

The Polarization Research Lab will make its data available to other academics, students, and the general public in real-time through a free interactive dashboard. The dashboard will allow users to select the variables that they are interested in such as finding out where polarization is highest and lowest in the U.S., by state and generate a visualization. As part of the lab’s commitment to making its information useful and accessible, plain English summaries about the lab’s work will also be available in addition to raw tabular data.

One of the lab’s objectives is to build relationships between community-based organizations, practitioners, and academics. The researchers are especially interested in engaging community organizations that work with rural citizens, veterans, and religious groups. “A lot of the work that we plan to do is going to require face to face engagement,” says Sean Westwood, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth, and one of the lab’s three co-directors. “These are complex interactions that can only be established by partnering with community organizations, so we want to not only provide information to these organizations but also build relationships that will help us conduct research.”

As part of its mission, the Polarization Research Lab plans to provide research support to community organizations and the next generation of scholars working on these issues. Through annual meetings, the lab will share its findings and strategies with leading scholars, graduate students and postdoctoral students, and community practitioners, who are working to understand and reduce partisan animosity.

"The creation of the new lab is especially timely in the aftermath of polarizing decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and as the 2022 election season approaches,” says Shanto Iyengar, the William Robertson Coe Professor and professor of political science in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University and the lab’s third co-director.

“We're not interested in helping Democrats or helping Republicans gain an advantage over their political rivals, our goal is to improve the state of American democracy,” says Westwood. “To do this we must first understand what is causing the growth of political animosity in this country. Ultimately, I think the key to help our nation is to step back from the parties and focus on things that we all have in common.”

The Polarization Research Lab is supported by the Charles Koch Foundation, the New Pluralists, and Knight Foundation.