Researchers to quantify political polarization

The Polarization Research Lab will merge public opinion data from in-depth surveys with elected officials' rhetoric to help understand both the causes and the effects of mass polarization.

As political polarization in the U.S. grows, researchers are working to understand what's driving it and what can be done to address it.

Already political scientists know that citizens often don't understand the political positions of their party and don't follow debates in Congress. Yet, some are increasingly willing to discriminate against those of the opposing party, allowing their animosity to spill over into daily life. 

The Polarization Research Lab – launched through a partnership of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College and Stanford University – aims to measure the degree of polarization in the U.S. as well as the support for breaking with democratic norms and for political violence, according to Dartmouth's announcement.

The lab plans to survey and interview 156,000 citizens over the next three years, tracking how attitudes change over time and how they line up with statements by elected officials.

After merging public opinion data from their surveys with elected officials' rhetoric from Twitter, press releases, floor speeches and media appearances, the researchers said they will use machine learning techniques to help understand both the causes and the effects of mass polarization. They expect their analysis of the data will show to what degree the animosity of elected officials feeds citizen animosity, how news events trigger hostility and how the elements work together.

Simultaneously tracking politicians' rhetoric and public opinion "gets us closer to understanding both the causes and the effects of mass polarization," said Yphtach Lelkes, an associate professor of communication at the Annenberg School. "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 plans to make its data available to other researchers and the public in real time through raw tabular data, plain English summaries of the lab's work, conferences and a free interactive dashboard. The dashboard will allow users to generate a visualization based on selected variables so they can see, for example, which states have the most or least polarization. 

"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," said Sean Westwood, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth, who will lead the new lab.  "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 lab's first public data release is scheduled for September.