Disdain for the opposing political party now outweighs affection for one’s own party, shows a new analysis by a multidisciplinary team of researchers.

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Disdain for the opposing political party now outweighs affection for one’s own party, shows a new analysis by a multidisciplinary team of researchers. Its conclusions reveal for the first time on record that negative sentiment for the opposition outstrips positive feelings for one’s own partisan affiliation and may be more important than ideological differences in guiding political behavior.

The work, “Political Sectarianism in America,” appears in the latest issue of Science and provides a broad survey of current scientific literature to interpret the current state of politics.

The paper introduces the term “political sectarianism” to describe the phenomenon, offering a new framework to interpret the current state of politics and illuminate current scientific literature. Political sectarianism embodies religious fervor, such as sin, public shaming, and apostasy. But unlike traditional sectarianism, where political identity is secondary to religion, political identity is primary, the authors note.

“The current state of political sectarianism produces prejudice, discrimination, and cognitive distortion, undermining the ability of government to serve its core functions of representing the people and solving the nation’s problems,” says Northwestern Professor Eli Finkel, the paper’s lead author. “Along the way, it makes people increasingly willing to support candidates that undermine democracy and to favor violence in support of their political goals.”

The team includes researchers from several academic disciplines—political science, psychology, sociology, economics, management, and computational social science. Among them are New York University’s Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology and neural science, and Joshua A. Tucker, a professor of politics.

“Our research places front and center what has been becoming more and more apparent: polarization in the United States is no longer just about policy differences—it is undergirded now by actual antipathy and disdain for supporters of the opposing party,” says Tucker, co-director of NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics (CSMaP). “In the short term, this makes governing more difficult. In the long term, it may end up undermining popular support for democracy. Democracy requires that parties cede power peacefully when they lose elections. If we stop believing that our political opponents have the best interest of the country in mind, then how long can we expect the peaceful transfer of power to continue?”

A review of dozens of published research studies led the authors to identify three key elements of political sectarianism, which, when combined, form the sentiments we see today. They include seeing the other side as different (othering), as dislikeable (aversion), and as immoral (moralization).

Using nationally representative survey data since the 1970s, the authors calculated the difference between Americans’ warm feelings toward their fellow partisans and their cold feelings toward opposing partisans. While feelings toward fellow partisans have remained consistently warm, feelings toward opposing partisans have declined from tepid to frosty. Those feelings have grown so frigid over time that they now exceed warm feelings toward fellow partisans, turning out-party hate into the dominant feeling in American politics.

“Things have gotten much more severe in the past decade, and there is no sign we’ve hit bottom,” adds co-author James Druckman, Payson S. Wilder Professor of Political Science and Institute for Policy Research fellow at Northwestern. “As much as the parties differ from one another, partisans perceive even greater differences, believing, for example, that the other party is ideologically extreme, engaged, and hostile. Correcting these types of misperceptions could partially vitiate sectarianism.”

The authors identify the multiple causes of political sectarianism and suggest potential approaches to address and mitigate it. The three causes include:

  • Identity alignment, meaning political party identities have sorted into a “mega-identity” separated along racial, religious, educational, and geographic lines;
  • The rise of partisan media, affected by the termination of the FCC “fairness doctrine” in 1987, which required broadcasters to discuss controversial topics in an unbiased way; and
  • Elite ideological polarization, with Republican politicians moving further right and Democratic politicians moving further left—and politicians in both parties becoming increasingly reliant on ideologically extreme donors.

“If the differences between Democrats and Republicans really were as extreme as Americans believe, that could help to explain the contempt,” Finkel observes. “But these differences exist more in people’s heads than in reality. There’s a whole lot of common ground, but Americans struggle to see it. Simply alerting people to their commonalities reduces out-party hate.”

“Although there is no silver bullet to solve this problem, the research suggests there are a number of potential strategies that can be used to reduce political sectarianism,” adds Van Bavel.

The researchers describe a number of factors that can reduce sectarianism, including adjusting social media algorithms to limit the reach of false or hyper-partisan content and incentivizing politicians to appeal to a broader proportion of Americans. Structural reforms around campaign finance and partisan gerrymandering are suggested as ways to reduce sectarianizing behaviors and to generate more robust competition in the marketplace of ideas.

Additional co-authors include Christopher A. Bail, Duke University; Mina Cikara, Harvard University; Peter H. Ditto, University of California-Irvine; Shanto Iyengar, Stanford University; Samara Klar, University of Arizona, Tucson; Lilliana Mason, University of Maryland; Mary C. McGrath, Northwestern University; Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College; David G. Rand, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Linda J. Skitka, University of Illinois–Chicago; and Cynthia S. Wang, Northwestern University.

Alternate media contact:
Stephanie Kulke
Northwestern University


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