Discussion Networks, Issues, and Perceptions of Polarization in the American Electorate

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Drawing on the sizable literature on polarization in the American public, we consider the link between discussion network composition and perceptions of polarization. Participants in the 2008–2009 ANES panel study were asked to complete an innovative battery; they interactively moved histograms to rate other groups’ positions on several prominent issues. These novel exercises provide data on individuals’ projections of the average attitudes of others, but critically, they also provide data on the variability of such attitudes. Thus, we use these “response-distributions” to thoroughly assess (1) the relationship between network characteristics and perceptions of the distance between party opinions, and (2) the relationship between network characteristics and perceptions of the homogeneity of opinions within parties. We find evidence that discussion networks track with individual perceptions of the parties in the electorate: exposure to interpersonal disagreement predicts the perception of less distance between (the mean opinions of) the parties, and the reporting of more heterogeneity of opinion within the parties. We conclude by discussing the implications of these findings for democratic functioning more generally.