The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’ve created cartoonish narratives about people in the opposite party. They’re not true.

Voting booths line the wall of the main floor of the Spectrum Center on the first day of early voting in Charlotte on Oct. 15. (Logan Cyrus/For The Washington Post)

Amanda Ripley is a contributor to the Atlantic and the author of a forthcoming book about how people escape intractable conflict.

When a country is experiencing high conflict, it begins to hallucinate. We start to believe manufactured narratives, which helps them come true. This is the unsettled state of our union on the eve of the election.

If Joe Biden appears to win the election this week but President Trump claims it was stolen, what percentage of Republicans say they would condone physical attacks against Biden’s supporters? In a survey in October, only 3 percent of Republicans said violence would be justified.

Three percent. That is still enough to create significant mayhem. But it remains a fringe element. Republicans overwhelmingly reject physical violence, according to the survey conducted by the nonpartisan organization More in Common and the polling firm YouGov.

But Democrats, asked to guess how Republicans would respond, predicted that 49 percent of Republicans would justify physical attacks against Biden supporters in that scenario. Forty-nine percent. That’s enough to persuade some people not to go out to vote at all.

Meanwhile, when Democrats were asked how they would respond to the reverse scenario, if Trump appears to win the election and Biden claims it was stolen, only 4 percent said they would condone physical attacks. Just like Republicans, Democrats overwhelmingly reject the use of violence.

Social norms have a profound influence on what we will — and will not — do in the days and weeks to come. So it’s reassuring to know that the vast majority of Americans still say they reject political violence.

But here again, Republicans guessed that 52 percent of Democrats would, in fact, justify physical attacks against Trump supporters. That’s a 48-percentage-point chasm between reality and perception, almost identical to the Democrats’ perception gap.

This is how fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It leads to overreaction which sparks revenge and before you know it, people will support strongmen rulers who make them feel safe. This is a well-established pattern, all over the world.

“Polarization takes on a life of its own,” says Dan Vallone, the U.S. director for More in Common and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. “It fuels its own logic. The more threatening you see the other side, the more you see indicators of the threat.”

I’ve spent the past four years learning about our political conflict, talking to groups of people who rarely talk to one other. What I’ve realized is that both sides are motivated by fear. Some of that fear is based in fact. But a startling amount is based on myth. I’ve heard people describe their neighbors and fellow Americans in ways that reveal how little they understand them. Both sides do this, and it is heartbreaking.

We’re watching the world out of different portals. Our windows have gotten warped and obscure. We are increasingly seeing a tiny, distorted slice of reality, dominated by extremists. Our vast, complicated country gets lost.

Fewer than 20 percent of us identify as very liberal or very conservative, but those on the extremes are twice as likely to post about politics on social media. Their ideas are wildly overrepresented in news stories. The louder and more frightening they are, the more space they take up.

From the end of May through the end of August, for example, some 10,600 protests took place across the United States, and 95 percent were peaceful, according to the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. But anyone watching cable news might have concluded that much of the country had descended into anarchy. The view through this portal, lacking any sense of relative frequency, will be enough to make some people overlook Trump’s sins just to keep the other, “lawless” side out of power.

The more news Americans consume, the more uninformed they are about their political opponents, More in Common has found. That’s a perilous situation. Republicans believe Democrats are more godless, gay and radical than they actually are. Democrats assume Republicans are richer, older and more unreasonable than they are. We’ve been coached to see each other as caricatures, and it is working.

There is still time in the United States to do something different.

Violent rhetoric can incite violence. But peaceful rhetoric incites peace. If you haven’t already, sign a statement condemning election violence — like this one from the Peace Alliance, which I signed last week. More than 200 evangelicals have signed this pledge, calling for a peaceful, fair election and condemning violence. In Utah, the two opposing gubernatorial candidates have appeared— together — in ads calling for decency and a peaceful transition of power. (The ads went viral, revealing how hungry Americans are for something different than what we’ve got.)

To my colleagues in the news media: Amplify these voices — especially people who call out their own partisans for misbehavior. In a fragile state, the media has a civic responsibility to protect democracy. Not just because it’s the right thing to do but because there will not be a free press for long otherwise.

Write a letter to the editor of your local news outlet, reminding everyone that we are all Americans, Vallone suggests. Bring water bottles and music to your polling place instead of guns and taunts. Step into the broken public square and reclaim it from the extremists. There are vastly more of us than there are of them.

Read more:

Amanda Ripley: Americans are at each other’s throats. Here’s one way out.

David Byler and Alyssa Rosenberg: The ultimate survival guide to election night and beyond, in 17 questions and answers

Nancy Gibbs: How to promote trust in the 2020 election

Henry Olsen: My predictions for the 2020 presidential and congressional races

Jennifer Rubin: Trump can declare whatever he wants, but it doesn’t make it so

Greg Sargent: Trump just revealed his plot to steal the election. Here’s a way to stop him.