Facing up to democratic distrust




By Peter Dizikes

In October 2020, two rival candidates for office in Utah made an unusual television ad together. Incumbent Republican Gov. Spencer Cox and his Democratic challenger, Chris Peterson, appeared in the same spot to note they were both “dedicated to the American values of liberty, democracy, and justice for all people,” as Cox said, and that “our common values transcend our political differences,” as Peterson put it.

Such reassurances are unusual, however, and can be overwhelmed by other messages. Indeed, a new study co-authored by an MIT scholar finds that U.S. citizens likely overestimate how much their political opponents seek to undermine democracy — a finding presenting both bad news and good news.

One ominous implication of the research is that by believing their political opponents wish to curtail democracy, some partisans will then justify the erosion of democratic norms by their own side.

“This can result in a death spiral for democracy,” says Alex “Sandy” Pentland, an MIT professor and co-author of a new paper detailing the results, which are based on surveys and experiments involving thousands of Americans.

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