The growing animosity between Democrats and Republicans in America is a well-discussed problem. It is frequently covered in the media, academic articles, and blog posts (hey, like this one!). A term academic research uses to describe the problem is “affective polarization.” Affective polarization captures the extent to which citizens feel sympathy towards partisan in- groups and antagonism towards partisan out-groups (Wagner 2021). Basically, it means that the “other side” isn’t viewed just an electoral rival to argue policies with, but an enemy that poses an existential threat.
What’s fascinating (or perhaps a bit alarming) is that the rise in affective partisanship is less about supporting or disagreeing on matters of legislative policy like the tax rate, and instead is about our partisanship becoming key component of our identity increasingly on par or even surpassing characteristics such as gender, race, religion, and nationality (Iyengar and Westwood 2015). Some research has begun referring to partisanship as a “super identity” due to the high overlap between specific demographic groups (like the four mentioned above) and partisanship (Mason 2018).
Importantly, this growing issue of a partisan super identity can be found not “only” in individual voters, but also in our elected officials (Abramowitz 2010; Utych 2020; Desilver 2022). But here’s the catch: research has found that average Americans are less polarized when it comes to policy positions than we think and act like we are, though actual polarization is getting worse as well (Levendusky and Malhotra 2016; Westfall et. al 2015).
As some political scientist, myself included, like to jokingly put it, affective partisanship is a heck of a drug. Identifying with a partisan group exerts a powerful influence on our behaviors and views.
If you were wondering how affective partisanship influences our life and reality, it affects:
- The media we consume (Levendusky 2013; Druckman al 2018)
- Our consumer behavior (Gerber and Huber 2009; McConnell et 2018)
- What we think about each other (Garrett al 2014; Levendusky and Malhotra 2016; Levendusky 2018; Ahler & Sood 2018; Wojcieszak and Warner 2020)
- Who we find attractive (Nicholson et 2016)
- Who we make friends with or if we can make friends where we live (Gimpel & Hui 2015; Bakshy et al. 2015; Chopik & Motyl 2016; Pew 2017)
- Who we date or marry (Huber and Malhotra 2017; Iyengar al 2012; Iyengar et al. 2019)
- Where we want to live (Bishop 2009; Gimpel and Hui 2015; Truglia and Cruces 2017)
- How we spend time with family we disagree with politically (Oliphant and Smith 2016; Tavernise and Seelye 2016; Chen and Rohla 2018)
- Who we hire (Gift and Gift 2015)
- Who we trust (Carlin and Love 2018; Iyengar and Westood 2015)
- Who we deem worthy of scholarships (Iyengar and Westwood 2015)
- Attitudes towards science and public health (Allcott al 2020; YouGov 2022)
- How we interpret or understand the world (Lakoff 2002)
- …and in an Illinois-specific example, whether the Chicago area and downstate Illinois should even be in the same state (Jackson and Foster 2021).
What many researchers find especially disheartening about all this is that our views of the demographic makeup and policy positions of the “other” party are wildly inaccurate (Levendusky and Malhotra 2016; Ahler & Sood 2018; Settle 2018). One explanation for these misperceptions might be that research has found the most visible people in American politics are the most ideologically extreme (Levendusky & Malhotra 2016; Settle 2018; Blazina 2022). So we’re seeing the extreme minority of parties and interpret them as being representative when they’re not, at least not yet.
Worse, the consequences of affective partisanship extend far beyond our social spheres. Research has found that in recent years we have become more “morally disengaged,” essentially dehumanizing and vilifying people in the “other” party (Cassesse 2020; Martherhus et. al 2021; Pacilli et al. 2016), including some voters expressing enjoyment when the “other side” suffers (Combs et. al 2009; Kalmoe and Mason 2019).
Occasionally, this can even extend into open hostility: researchers have found that a growing segment of the American electorate is comfortable resorting to committing violence against political opponents (Kalmoe and Mason 2022), and experimental work shows that stronger partisans are angrier when their group loses an election, with that anger spurring political participation and manifesting itself into increased levels of hostility towards opponents (Huddy et al. 2015; Valentino et al. 2011; Mason 2018).
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, research has found that affective partisanship damages dedication to democratic values and democracy in Americans (Graham and Svolik 2020). The actions at June 14th 2017 practice for the annual congressional charity baseball game or what happened at the U.S. capitol building on January 6th 2021 certainly come to mind thinking about these findings and the implications for affective polarization on American society.
So what can we do about affective partisanship? That’s a big question that doesn’t necessarily have clear answers. But we do have some research that may be helpful: First, exercising wariness around partisan news sources is a good first step, as this type of media may impact affective partisanship (Lelkes et al. 2017; Druckman et. al 2018; Broockman and Kalla 2022). This may be because partisan news sources often depict the opposing party in extreme terms that dehumanize or link them to extreme groups like Nazis and Communists (Berry & Sobieraj 2014) and focuses disproportionately on out-party scandals (real or imagined), encouraging hostility toward the “other” party (Puglisi & Snyder 2011). Additionally, the lack of balanced content in these outlets may drive viewers to adopt extreme ideological positions (Levendusky 2013), which, in turn, may increase affective polarization (Rogowski and Sutherland 2016, Webster and Abramowitz 2017). This all may be contributing to affective partisanship and particularly the “moral disengagement” component discussed earlier, which forms the bedrock of further negative behaviors.
Social media is another vehicle for affective partisanship and polarization, as well. Considering that more extreme partisans post on social media accounts, users of social media may be more exposed to affective partisanship and maybe have skewed views of the “other” party (Bakshy et. al 2015; Levendusky & Malhotra 2016; Settle 2018; Blazina 2022). Correcting misperceptions about the demographic makeup of the “other” party decreases affective polarization (Ahler and Sood 2018), although fighting with strangers on the internet is hardly a productive use of one’s time. Rather, being cognizant of the fact that algorithms boost extreme content, and being aware of how your own posts contribute to perceptions of both “your” side and the “other” side may help with affective polarization.
One way to address this, besides seeking out detailed demographic data about the “other” party (which, who wouldn’t want to do that?!), is to break out of the so-called “echochambers” we’ve put ourselves in and seek out social interactions with members of the “other” party, which have been found to lessen affective polarization (Mutz 2002; Nelson 2015; Warner and Villamil 2017; Wojcieszak and Warner 2020; Baron et. al 2021; Levendusky and Stecula 2021; Rossiter 2021).
For example, if someone said a certain political party believed something extreme, in the past you’d be able to say “I know Dave from bowling is from that party and he doesn’t think that extreme thing.” Absent those non-political social connections that have decreased in recent years we fill our knowledge of outparties with the extreme examples we see in media or social media. Get to know “Dave” again. And, importantly, the type of contact matters. Cooperation helps with the impact of such interactions with the other party (Allport, 1954; Wojcieszak and Warner 2020). So perhaps find ways to cooperate with members of the “other” party outside of political areas— again, such as playing on a bowling team with people whose political views are different than one’s own. As well, being trained on personal persuasion techniques makes us more open to listening to the other side and has been found to decrease affective partisanship (Kalla and Broockman 2021). So maybe we all just need to work on our communication skills?
In total, affective partisanship is a growing problem in America. Its impacts are wide reaching and potentially deadly, though actual policy distances are actually smaller than people perceive them, but they are growing. Our understanding of solutions are in the nascent stages, but there appears to be some things that MAY help solve this problem like media consumption, social media engagement, social networks, and communications training.
Additional interesting data, for those of you who love numbers:
- In 2015, less than a quarter of dating profiles had information about party identification but in 2017 that rate had doubled (Kiefer 2017).
- In 1958, 33 percent of Democrats wanted their children to marry a Democrat, and 25 percent of Republicans wanted their children to marry a But by 2016, 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans felt that way (Vavreck 2017).
- Thanksgiving dinners attended by people from areas who voted for different political parties are 30 to 50 minutes shorter than dinners attended by people from areas that voted for the same political party (Chen and Rohla 2018).
- Further, Democrats and Republicans have “just a few” or no friends in the opposing party (Pew Research Center 2017).
- As recently as prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 80% of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans have said yes parents should have to vaccinate their children against infectious It’s now 77% of Democrats and 39% of Republicans (YouGov 2022).
- When it comes to discussions around Downstate Illinois splitting off from the Chicago area, 48% of Republicans report supporting the idea compared to 15% of Democrats (Jackson and Foster 2021). Though of course, supporting such an idea in abstract and doing so if the possibility were to become more real are two very different things.
- Receiving training on personal persuasion has been found to decrease affective partisanship through humanizing others, the formation of emotional connections during conversations, and seeing members of the “other” party as different than their stereotypes (Kalla and Broockman 2021).
- This is all important as average Americans are actually less polarized than affective polarization and misperceptions would have us believe, though the actual distance on policy issues is growing (Levendusky and Malhotra 2016; Westfall et. al 2015).
Have thoughts about effective tactics for reducing affective partisanship in your daily life? Let us know in the comments. As well, stay tuned to the Capitol Connection and the CSPL email list for updates on the work we’re doing in this area, which includes research, webinars, and policy summits.
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Author biography: AJ Simmons is the Research Director of the Center for State Policy and Leadership at UIS. He holds a PhD from the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University. He likes bowling and discussing politics with people he disagrees with.
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 These are all just a sample of much more research that I exclude due to space.