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Reviews |  We can’t even agree on what separates us


In an email, Huber wrote that there is “a very simple alternative” to explain the growing partisan animosity:

People choose which party they belong to based on issues, (and) animosity is based on political disagreement. We know people don’t agree on certain things, and of course that’s the basis of politics. If we all agreed, we wouldn’t need a political system to manage our disagreements. But, the disagreement need not be elite-led or tied to tribal affiliation; we may have preferences.

Huber clarified:

Since parties are clearly defined ideologically, we tend on average to assume (correctly) that the opinions of the general public are also related to their partisanship. So if I want to understand why people are emotionally polarized it’s because they’re right that on average Republicans and Democrats disagree on the issues, and not just the issues random, but on the issues that lead us to choose the party to which we belong. I wouldn’t call it tribal – it sounds like issue-based politics.

Orr claimed in an email:

Several experiments have successfully manipulated feelings toward people on the opposing party and found no effect on anti-democratic attitudes or other predicted consequences of affective polarization. These results imply that affective polarization may not be as dangerous on its own as many researchers previously assumed. I don’t mean to downplay the damage caused by partisan violence or dismiss efforts to combat indiscriminate partisan hostility, but a widespread failure to be upset by some of the things our fellow Americans are trying to accomplish through politics can also put people in physical danger.

In an effort to clarify the relationship between ideological and affective polarization, I interviewed a number of political scientists and received thoughtful responses.

Sean Westwood of Dartmouth emphasized the importance of “sorting”:

Sorting argues that citizens and elites proactively move towards parties that best reflect their views. Therefore, this should reduce the prevalence of misaligned senators like Joe Manchin. Sorting makes parties more cohesive and moves them to more extreme positions on average, increasing ideological polarization. The evidence for a sorting among the elites is very strong. The best way to think about this, I think, is that sorting causes polarization.

So what about affective polarization?

Emotional polarization is more prevalent than principled ideological polarization among voters. Even voters who are completely unaware of their party’s political positions can develop an emotional attachment to co-participants and a negative view of the opposition.

Unfortunately, Westwood continues,

We don’t really know where affective polarization comes from or why it increases. Some claim that it comes from an ideological sorting, but this is not very satisfying because many people have emotional preferences and at the same time are unable to correctly identify the political positions of the parties.

How are sorting, ideological polarization and affective polarization articulated?

Sorting among the elites makes it less likely that more conservative voices exist within the Democratic Party and more liberal voices exist within the Republican Party. This makes parties more ideologically coherent and more likely to adopt more extreme political positions, thereby increasing ideological polarization. This is amplified by the lack of centrists running for office and winning positions. Polarization is the consequence of the complementary phenomenon of growing ideological cohesion between parties and fewer and fewer moderates to temper the movement of parties towards ideological extremes.

At the same time, Westwood supports:

Voters are increasingly emotionally polarized. The link between the ideological polarization of elites and the affective polarization of citizens seems credible at first glance, but the evidence supporting such a relationship is very difficult to find. This is what makes research into the causes of affective polarization so important and our current understanding so frustrating. I would see ideological polarization and affective polarization as two parallel and related phenomena, but with different antecedents and different effects on behavior.

Yphtach Lelkes, professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, approached my questions from a different angle, emphasizing the ideological constraint:

At the risk of sounding too academic, scholars sometimes say that polarization can be thought of as a loss of dimensionality in the problem space. In other words, if I knew your position on abortion, I did not necessarily know your position on health care. Among the elites, the dimensionality of the problem space has completely collapsed. If I know a senator’s position on abortion, I know what that senator’s position is on health care, gun rights, immigration, and so on.

Political scientists, he continued,

have long argued that a sign of the disconnect between the mainstream and elites is that mainstream attitudes are multidimensional (knowing what a person’s stance on abortion is does not necessarily tell me what their stance is on health care), while elite attitudes are one-dimensional.

That’s changing, Lelkes explained, citing Chris Hare’s work in the article I’ve already mentioned: “Hare (who knows a ton on this subject) has recently shown that public opinion is now collapses in one dimension.”

Affective polarization can have substantial consequences in the real world.

James Druckman, Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov, Matthew Levendusky and John Barry Ryan of Northwestern, University of Arizona, Stony Brook, University of Pennsylvania and Stony Brook studied partisan responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. 19 in their 2021 paper, “Affective Polarization, Local Contexts, and Public Opinion in America,” and found:

For concern about Covid-19 and support for Covid-19 policies, the marginal effect of animosity is significant and negative for Republicans in counties with few cases; confidence intervals for other marginal effects overlap with zero. Increases in animosity are only statistically significant for Republicans in counties with low cases, suggesting that for concern and support, partisan gaps are largely a function of Republicans with considerable animosity. to the Democrats.

Gary Jacobson of the University of California, San Diego summarized the evolution of polarization in his email response:

Over the past four decades, largely in response to more sharply differentiated alternatives presented by national parties and their leaders, voters have split into increasingly distinct and divisive political camps. As partisan identities, ideological leanings and political preferences have come closer together, the political attitudes of individuals have become more consistent and more distinct from those of supporters on the other side, leaving ordinary Republicans and Democrats disagree on a growing number of issues. .

The political divides that once divided the public in various ways, Jacobson continued,

now tend to coincide. Emotional reactions to parties and candidates have diverged, largely due to growing antipathy among supporters toward supporters and leaders of the other party. Widening demographic differences between party identifiers—differences in race, age, gender, religiosity, education, community, and marital status—have also contributed to partisan “tribalism,” as has the growing partisan homogeneity of states and districts.

Sorting, according to Jacobson,

is a primary source of affective polarization. If the people on the other side are consistently wrong on all important political issues, it will be harder for you to like or respect them. This is especially the case if some of the issues have a strong moral component (abortion, civil rights), where the other side is seen not only as misguided but immoral, even evil.

Demographic sorting by race, education, and geography “contributes to affective polarization by clarifying who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them,'” Jacobson wrote: “The more parties appear to differ in morality and identity, the more partisanship is intense conflict and the greater the likelihood of violence.

Jacobson was not sympathetic to the conclusions of Fowler’s “Moderates” article:

My analysis is orthogonal to the conclusions of the “Moderates”. Fowler et al. find the electorate largely moderate in ideology, but they have little to say about how their findings relate to data (like Hare’s) that consistently finds Americans increasingly divided along party lines on party ideology, issues and affect, and so on.

Jacobson pointed out that the authors of “Moderates”

are all top-notch academics and their methodological skills far exceed my own, so I take empirical work seriously. But they have yet to tie it to the broader literature or explain why so many centrist voters seem incapable of electing centrists, or why it’s when there’s a national tide against a party, it’s mostly the moderates who lose.

In a sign of the schisms in the American electorate, Jacobson recalled a defeated congressman “complaining that voters showed their desire to moderate national politics by eliminating all moderates.”

Another key factor underlies the growing polarization and absence of moderate politicians.

“Most of the legislative polarizations are already playing out among people running for office,” Stanford political scientist Andrew Hall wrote in his book “Who Wants to Run: How Downgrading Political Office Leads to polarization”: “Indeed, when we examine the ideological positions of who is running for the House, we see that the aggregate of all candidates – not just incumbents – has become markedly polarized since 1980.”

This trend stems from the fact that since “the winning candidate can influence ideological policies” in increasingly polarized legislatures and Congress, “the ideological benefits of running for office are not equal across the ideological spectrum.” As a result, “when the costs of applying are high or the benefits of holding a position are low, more moderate candidates are disproportionately less likely to apply.”

In other words, polarization has created its own vicious circle, weeding out moderates, favoring extremists, and constraining government action even in times of crisis.

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