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Who Polarizes? Political Knowledge and Opinion Change in Citizen Deliberation

Democracy
Extremism
Political Participation
Political Psychology
Immigration
Experimental Design
Public Opinion
Kaisa Herne
Tampere University
Kaisa Herne
Tampere University
Kimmo Grönlund
Åbo Akademi
Henrik Serup Christensen
Åbo Akademi
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Abstract

In order to discuss how mini-publics can be institutionalized as part of a deliberative democratic system, we need to understand how different designs within mini-publics can affect opinion change at the individual level. The paper addresses opinion polarization, i.e. a process where opinions more toward an extreme, and which has been identified as a potential threat to democracy (Sunstein 2009). We examine how political knowledge affects opinion polarization at the individual level in deliberative mini-publics. Moreover, we analyze how this relationship is affected by various contextual factors such as decision-making rules, group composition and deliberative norms. Existing evidence on the association between political sophistication and opinion polarization is somewhat mixed. Taber and Lodge (2006, also Meffert et al 2006) observe that the most sophisticated polarize more than others do. This is a result of confirmation bias, that is, the tendency to seek confirmatory evidence and avoid disconfirming evidence, which is strongest among the politically sophisticated. However, Taber et al (2009) do not observe an association between sophistication and polarization. Moreover, we lack knowledge on the connection between political knowledge and polarization in a deliberative dialogue. Deliberative mini-publics are democratic innovations, where participants are primed to be open to others’ arguments as well as listen and respect views that are different from their own. The aim of this setting is to enhance reason-giving, openness and reflection. We expect these processes to alleviate the connection between sophistication and polarization, although this effect may vary depending on the specific characteristics of the deliberative mini-publics, such as type of decision-making and group composition. We study polarization at the individual level, and define it as becoming more extreme in one’s opinions. In our paper, political knowledge is divided into general political knowledge and issue knowledge. We expect to see a difference between these two types so that issue knowledge leads to opinion polarization, whereas general political knowledge does not. Further, we assume that group level disagreement moderates the relationship so that issue knowledge leads to a stronger opinion polarization in like-minded groups, compared to divers groups. The paper is based on evidence from three experiments in citizen deliberation, organized in Finland 2006 – 2014. In all experiments, participants discussed in small groups as well as filled in surveys before and after taking part in the deliberative discussion. Opinions were measured by a sum variable based on several items on the given issue. Each experiment was population-based, i.e. participants were recruited randomly among adults.