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Americans’ Thinking about Political Division Offers Clues for Communicating about Systemic Reform

October 30, 2023

Americans see partisanship as a problem. This is no secret. But our cynicism about political parties takes different forms, with very different implications for progressives. Some ways of thinking about partisanship can be leveraged to build support for systemic change, while others obscure the need for reforms.

We will soon be releasing a full report with the results of a multi-year, qualitative investigation of Americans’ deep, taken-for-granted ways of thinking about our government, the Constitution, and democracy. In this article, we’re taking a closer look at how themes of partisanship have surfaced in our research, and what those conversations reveal about Americans’ thinking about our political systems more broadly. 


What We’re Finding

Participants in our research continually brought up political parties as preventing compromise and being more interested in winning than solving problems. People see our political parties as major contributors to social division in the United States, and as a force that undermines rather than promotes our democracy. In interviews, participants rarely if ever depicted parties as positive channels for action or as a means through which people’s political preferences can be expressed or negotiated.

But in some important ways, there is more to the story than “people hate political parties.” We all hold multiple ways of thinking about our political system—including how we think about partisanship. We’ve found three foundational mindsets that inform how people think about these issues:

  1. The System-is-Rigged mindset, or the idea that people in power have rigged our political and economic systems at the expense of “regular” people.
  2. The Personalism mindset, or the idea that the problem with our political system is the individual people who currently hold power, and not the systems and institutions themselves.
  3. The Government as “Themmindset, or the idea that the government is intrinsically separate from the American people and stands in opposition to what the people want or need.

These ways of thinking present both opportunities and challenges for those fighting for justice within the existing system and for those looking to reform it:

  1. The System-is-Rigged mindset brings systemic issues with our political system into view—but it doesn’t offer a clear picture of what those problems are or how they work.

When using the System-is-Rigged mindset, participants frequently assumed that Democrats and Republicans share a common interest in retaining power and using it to benefit themselves, rather than their constituents. People recognize that the system is set up to cater to powerful interests rather than the public. For example, participants sometimes suggested that politicians from both parties are playing up partisan differences to mask their ulterior motivations to help wealthy people and corporations. How the system is rigged, and what can be done to unrig it, however, is not well understood.

  1. The Personalism mindset holds individual leaders accountable, but obscures thinking about systemic changes. 

When using the Personalism mindset, people didn’t think of political parties as institutions. Instead, they understood them as groups of individual politicians who care more about winning than doing what’s best for their constituents. When government isn’t responsive to the needs of constituents, people blame the individual leaders, assuming that they’re bad people who don’t care about the American public. The prevalence of Personalism signals an opening for conversations around accountability and the importance of elections. However, its focus on individuals can obscure the role of our party system and political institutions more broadly—and what can be done to improve them.

  1. The Government as “Them” mindset casts political parties and elected officials as inherent opponents of the people.

When using the Government as “Them” mindset, parties were viewed as a way for politicians to advance their own interests. This way of thinking sets political parties up as inherent opponents of the people, separate from us and counter to our interests. Unlike the System-is-Rigged mindset, it doesn’t open space for thinking about the aspects of our system that lead to dysfunction—it just leads people to write off government entirely. It doesn’t offer a sense of what would need to change to make our government “of” and “for” the people. 

Our ambition with this research is not to convince people that the system is working, or that individual leaders don’t matter, or that our government is serving the people well. Instead, we are trying to understand and illuminate how these mindsets shape people’s thinking, with the goal of finding ways to foster a more productive conversation about how our political system works, where it’s falling short, and what can be done to improve it.


What Does This Mean?

People are (rightfully) fed up with the ways that political parties are barriers to—rather than mechanisms for—responsiveness and accountability. Some of the mindsets that people use to think about these issues lead to more general cynicism about government and democracy itself, while others open space for people to engage with systemic solutions. 

Parties can and should be channels for expressing popular preferences and holding leaders accountable, but systems will need to change for this to happen.

The good news is: people want change. The System-is-Rigged mindset opens space for considering and supporting steps that would unrig the system—from protections for voting rights, to addressing gerrymandering, to campaign finance and Supreme Court reforms, to proposals for ranked-choice voting or proportional representation. People see that the systems we have are problematic and are open to changing them, but they typically don’t see exactly how this can happen and need explicit cues to make those connections. 


What Can We Do?

In the coming months, we will be releasing the results of ongoing research that sharpens our understanding of how to frame these issues to build support for a broad range of solutions. Future research will include empirically-tested recommendations for talking about our systems in ways that build understanding and inspire action.

For now, when talking about dysfunction in our political parties, it’s important to channel people’s cynicism in ways that expand, rather than limit, possibilities for solutions. Here are four first steps you can take:

  1. Leverage Americans’ frustrations with political parties as an opportunity to talk about the need for systemic reforms. Recognize that complaints about political division are rooted in deeper frustrations with our political system. Don’t let the conversation stop at cynicism about partisanship—pivot to the need for and importance of systemic reform.
  2. Steer and direct system-is-rigged thinking. We must connect the dots between people’s sense that the system is rigged with the specific reforms that help unrig it. Explain how our systems and institutions are set up in ways that undermine a responsive government—and, crucially, point to solutions that show how the system can be “unrigged” and made better. 
  3. Don’t let personalism obscure systemic thinking about our government. The importance of voting bad leaders out or keeping certain political groups out of power can’t be understated, but when identifying solutions or calling for action, we must also provide a vision for what a properly functioning democratic system looks like and lay out the steps needed to get there. In sum: hold leaders accountable, but be careful not to focus exclusively on individuals. What are the systems and structures in place that allowed us to reach our current political environment in the first place? 
  4. Avoid cueing government as “them” thinking. Even something as small as being mindful of which pronouns you use in your communications can be helpful. Using too much “them” language when talking about the government is likely to cue this problematic way of thinking about government as being intrinsically, inevitably opposed to the interests of “we the people.”

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