Let’s start with how much Republicans and Democrats actually know about the lives of people on the other side. The authors of a 2017 study in the Journal of Politics revealed that the average Democrat believes that more than 40 percent of Republicans earn more than $250,000 per year. Meanwhile, Republicans believe that nearly 40 percent of Democrats are LGBTQ. How close are these estimates to reality? Not very. Just 2 percent of Republicans are doing that well financially, and just 6 percent of Democrats are LGBTQ.
Getting basic facts about our neighbors this laughably wrong is pathetic enough. More alarming is the tendency to erroneously attribute extreme views and motives to the other side. The nonprofit organization More in Common recently released a report on the “Perception Gap” — the difference between what we think the “other side” believes and what they actually believe. The study found that average Democrats and Republicans radically overestimate the percentage of the other side that holds “extreme views.”
Let’s take a specific example of what this means in the case of a contentious issue like immigration, which continues to roil American politics. Despite a recent ugly rally and series of tweets from the president, the data show that, in fact, a strong majority of Republicans believe that properly controlled immigration can be good for the country. They also show that a strong majority of Democrats disagree that the United States should have completely open borders. In other words, while left and right differ on immigration, those holding extreme views are a minority in both parties. However, Republicans think a majority of Democrats believe in open borders while Democrats think a majority of Republicans believe immigration is bad for the United States. The perception gap is 33 percentage points on each side.