What polarizes citizens? An explorative analysis of 817 attitudinal items from a non-random online panel in Germany

Introduction

Opinion polarization has become a prevalent research and mediatic topic in Western Europe over recent years, mainly due to its scientific and societal relevance. Various studies point to the lack of evidence of distributive opinion polarization in Europe, suggesting that the socio-political context might be particularly propitious for opinion polarization in the U.S. context but not in Western European countries. These studies analyse the same item batteries from international social surveys. Therefore, the lack of polarization might be due to an issue with the items (e.g., the nature or substance of an item) or item formulation characteristics used to measure polarization. This debate would greatly benefit from reflecting on the formulation characteristics of the typical survey items analysed and the potential effects of survey measurement on distributive opinion polarization. Our study seeks to understand the item characteristics that most likely lead to distributive opinion polarization by analysing a unique set of 817 political attitudinal items, which were gathered from a non-random online panel in Germany during 2022.

Results

Our results show that only 20% of our sample of items has some–at most moderate–level of opinion polarization. Moreover, whether an item tackles financial and non-financial costs, its salience in the news media, and the implicit level of knowledge required to answer an item (level of technicality) are significantly associated with higher opinion polarization. By contrast, items measuring a cultural issue and items with a high level of abstraction are significantly associated with a lower level of polarization.

Conclusion

Our study highlights the importance of reflecting on the potential influence of an item's issue and item formulation characteristics on the empirical assessment of distributive opinion polarization.

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