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The myth of political polarization

Political psychology professor aims to teach students that we are more similar than we are different

Political Polarizatino

Photo by Roya Ann Miller/Unsplash

June 16, 2022

In what feels like the longest political drama of the modern age, America is currently transfixed on the live coverage of the Jan. 6 hearings and the future of American democracy. A common thought you may hear while watching news coverage and commentary is that we are more polarized than ever before. 

Matthew Dempsey, a lecturer in the online Master of Arts in Political Psychology program at Arizona State University, hopes to teach students that we are more alike than we are different and that there is actually hope for a positive future. 

“I happen to be teaching a class right now on political polarization and, interestingly, many academics say we aren't polarized — (that) it's a myth. While common sense tells us that it is real, academic findings suggest that we are all more similar than we are different,” Dempsey said. “When students write that we are more polarized than ever before, I always respond with ‘the Civil War is calling.' If you look at the issues most Americans care about, like access to health care or education, 70–80% of Americans agree on most things. ”

Research conducted by a group of researchers at the More in Common company found that in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S., people who were portrayed as being isolated and divided actually shared common values and identity beliefs. For example, in a report on racial divides in America, 77% of Americans reported feeling divided, however, they also agreed on the principles of “teaching and dealing with the past,” and on ideas like access to health care. 

“What we are seeing is that the 24-hour news cycle sells emotional content that may not always be newsworthy, and people who used to lack a platform are now able to be amplified through social media,” Dempsey said. “Every idiot in the village has a megaphone now, but in the past, you had to say those thoughts out loud to real people who would ostracize you. Now, with the expanse of social media and the internet, it enables the amplification of the extremes.”

Dempsey received his PhD from ASU under the mentorship of Foundation Professor Kim Fridkin and teaches topics like the fundamentals of political psychology, campaigns and elections, and political polarization. Prior to becoming an educator, he worked in political campaigns from 2002 to 2010. Initially, he worked as a political fundraiser for a candidate running for the Texas State House, and finally as a deputy campaign manager for a member of Congress. 

He found that while working in the campaign world was exhilarating, it was exceptionally difficult because if the candidate didn’t win, you could find yourself out of a job overnight. 

“Political psychology as its own distinct subfield is relatively new, maybe 30 to 40 years old at the most, so in terms of academic fields, it's quite new, whereas political science was one of the first social sciences, along with psychology,” Dempsey said. “It provides an interesting perspective on politics that pure political science or pure psychology might ignore, such as campaign strategy and coalition building techniques, or even getting someone to say yes when they would otherwise say no.”

Political psychology’s general approach to research is to focus on individual political attitudes, emotions, beliefs and behavior, and attempt to explain these phenomena using psychological research and theory.

Graduates from the political psychology program pursue careers that range from campaign strategy, legislation and political marketing to lobbying and voter mobilization. Dempsey answered some questions about the program and how he hopes to help students navigate "the messy world that is politics."

Portrait of ASU lecturer .

Matthew Dempsey

Question: What is the focus for your area of research and why did you choose that field?

Answer: My research has focused on campaigns, specifically political television advertisements, and Latino political participation. My general research interests include Congress, as well as electoral campaigns. Prior to earning my PhD, I worked in professional politics for about eight years, for various elected officials across the country. My practical experience in the field has very much shaped my academic interests.  

Q: Why did you decide to join ASU? 

A: I did my PhD work here at ASU and I'm beyond thrilled to continue to be part of the ASU family! 

Q: What are you most looking forward to in your role as a lecturer in the Master of Arts in Political Psychology program?

A: The political psychology master's program is so unique and is the perfect opportunity for me to blend my professional and academic experience. Since our students typically want to work in professional politics or pursue a doctoral degree after finishing the program, I'm well-suited to advise both types of students. In the classroom, I love to open students' eyes to what academics have to say about politics — and it often doesn't confirm "common sense"! — and outside of the classroom, I enjoy meeting with students during office hours to advise them on future career paths.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish as you work at the university?

A: It is my hope that I can help students develop the tools necessary to understand the messy world that is politics. Academics, both political scientists and psychologists, have a lot to offer in terms of understanding human behavior in the political sphere. As I mentioned above, academic studies often display results that are contrary to what's commonly thought — and it's amazing to see the light bulb go off for students.

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