2. Research on polarization

I wanted to know what people who study polarization as a specialty think about it. I faced the predictable problem: Dipping into any field of research is a dicey proposition for an amateur, for reasons you can readily imagine.

Trying to keep it simple but also get some value from research, I made two searches using Google Scholar, one for “political polarization” (20,800 results) and the other for “polarized partisanship” (17,300 results). I looked only at articles that had been published since 2012, and then only among the first fifty hits in each search. I looked only at articles that had been cited by at least five other articles. I read only the abstracts, 23 in all.

I posed a few questions that I was asking and that others might ask. Then I cut-and-pasted-in bits of the abstracts, in a search for answers. I called attention to expressions that caught my eye by changing them to italic type. I hope this collection will be interesting to others. In the last section [link], I say what I make of it all.

When researchers say “polarization,” what are they pointing to?

  • We argue in favor of an alternative definition of polarization, based on the classic concept of social distance (Bogardus 1947). Using data from a variety of sources, we demonstrate that both Republicans and Democrats increasingly dislike, even loathe, their opponents. (Iyanger & Welkes, 2012, emphasis added)
  • In this paper, I present evidence that there has been a substantial increase in the intensity of partisan affect within the American electorate over the past several decades… (Abramowitz, 2013, emphasis added)
  • Disagreements over whether polarization exists in the mass public have confounded two separate types of polarization. When social polarization is separated from issue position polarization, both sides of the polarization debate can be simultaneously correct. (Mason, 2015)
  • Using nationally representative survey data, we demonstrate that stronger partisan identities, more than ideological identities or issue preferences, are associated with a greater sense of partisan hostility—specifically, party rivalry and anger. (Miller & Conover, 2015)

Are the political elites polarized?

  • Partisan conflict has reached new heights in Washington in recent years… (Abramowitz, 2013)
  • One of the most noteworthy events over the last quarter-century in U.S. politics is the change in the nature of elite party competition: The parties have become increasingly polarized. (Druckman and others, 2013).

Are ordinary voting citizens polarized?

  • Whereas “maximalists” claim that partisans’ views on policies have become more extreme over time (Abramowitz 2010), “minimalists” (Fiorina and Abrams 2009) contend that the majority of Americans remain centrist, and that what little centrifugal movement has occurred reflects sorting, i.e., the increased association between partisanship and ideology. (Iyanger & Welkes, 2012)
  • When defined in terms of social identity and affect toward copartisans and opposing partisans, the polarization of the American electorate has dramatically increased. (Iyanger & Westwood, 2015)

Are polarization of elites and polarization of citizens connected?

  • Specifically, polarization intensifies the impact of party endorsements on opinions, decreases the impact of substantive information and, perhaps ironically, stimulates greater confidence in those—less substantively grounded—opinions. (Druckman and others, 2013)
  • Considerable evidence documents the impact that elite polarization has had on the influence of partisanship on vote choice and attitudes. Yet, much of the electorate remains moderate. (Thornton, 2013)
  • The results demonstrate that the public is responding to the increased clarity in elite positions in the form of an increased number of opinions, but for many the increase results from a mix of positive and negative reactions. (Thornton, 2013)
  • I demonstrate that the social identity match between citizen and party is a stronger predictor of party identity than the ideological match, especially among White Protestant authoritarians. All else being equal, White authoritarians identified with the party that best represented their in-groups, even if that meant identifying with the party of the left. (Wronski, 2014)

Why does polarization occur?

  • In this paper, I present evidence that… this increase in affective polarization is largely the result of an increase in the strength of voters’ ideological preferences. (Abramowitz, 2013)
  • Using data from the American National Election Studies, we show that as partisan identities have become more closely aligned with social, cultural and ideological divisions in American society, party supporters including leaning independents have developed increasingly negative feelings about the opposing party and its candidates. (Abramowitz & Webster, 2015)
  • The evidence suggests that people’s mistaken sense that they understand the causal processes underlying policies contributes to political polarization. Asking people to explain policies in detail both undermined the illusion of explanatory depth and led to attitudes that were more moderate. (Fernback and others, 2013)
  • Proliferation of media choices lowered the share of less interested, less partisan voters and thereby made elections more partisan. But evidence for a causal link between more partisan messages and changing attitudes or behaviors is mixed at best. (Prior, 2013)
  • My results demonstrate that partisan media polarize the electorate by taking relatively extreme citizens and making them even more extreme. (Levandusky, 2013)
  • We show that media coverage of polarization increases citizens’ beliefs that the electorate is polarized. Furthermore, the media’s depiction of a polarized electorate causes voters to moderate their own issue positions but increases their dislike of the opposing party. (Westfall & Malhotra, 2015)
  • Individuals with more extreme partisan attitudes perceive greater polarization than individuals with less extreme partisan attitudes. (Van Boven 2012)

What are the consequences of polarization?

  • I argue that two additional factors are essential for understanding the sharp fall in trust in government in recent years: the level of partisan polarization in the Congress (as reflected in the ideological distance between the parties on roll calls) and the inability of Congress to enact legislation (gridlock). (Uslaner, 2015)
  • The partisan-ideological sorting that has occurred in recent decades has caused the nation as a whole to hold more aligned political identities, which has strengthened partisan identity and the activism, bias, and anger that result from strong identities, even though issue positions have not undergone the same degree of polarization.(Mason, 2015)
  • Using data from the American National Election Studies, we show that as partisan identities have become more closely aligned with social, cultural and ideological divisions in American society, party supporters including leaning independents have developed increasingly negative feelings about the opposing party and its candidates. (Abramowitz & Webster, 2015)
  • This [negative partisanship] has led to dramatic increases in party loyalty and straight-ticket voting, a steep decline in the advantage of incumbency and growing consistency between the results of presidential elections and the results of House, Senate and even state legislative elections. (Abramowitz & Webster, 2015)
  • The consequence of this [partisan-ideological sorting] is a new electorate that generally agrees on most issues but is nevertheless increasingly biased, active, and angry. (Mason, 2013)
  • These attitudes [about own and other party] may be contributing to greater negativity in campaign advertising and other forms of political communication. (Abramowitz, 2013)
  • We note that the willingness of partisans to display open animus for opposing partisans can be attributed to the absence of norms governing the expression of negative sentiment and that increased partisan affect provides an incentive for elites to engage in confrontation rather than cooperation. (Iyanger & Westwood, 2015)
  • [D]uring economic downturns, citizens of different ideological persuasions and partisan affiliations tend to agree that the state of the economy is dire. During recoveries, on the other hand, evaluations are polarized along partisan and ideological lines. (Stanig, 2013)

Adding it up

At the heart of the matter is increasing alignment of party identities with ideological identities, social identities, geographical identities, and so on. Thus our partisan identities gain in significance and importance; they organize more of our concerns. We have more and more of our eggs in party baskets.

In the reports of research, notice the repeated suggestions that, despite our polarization, much of the electorate remains moderate; that our issue positions have not been as polarized as our political identities; that a majority of Americans remain centrist, even as partisan hostility builds; that we tend to moderate our own issue positions even as our dislike of the opposing party increases; and even that we generally agree on most issues but are nevertheless increasingly biased, active, and angry.

All of those findings counsel us to try to pay less attention to our feelings, stop nursing our grudges, stop emphasizing our differences, and start looking for our areas of agreement.

I was particularly intrigued by the reported finding that a mistaken sense that we understand the causal processes underlying policies can contribute to political polarization, and that having to explain policies in detail both undermines that illusion and produces more moderate attitudes. (Fernback and others, 2013)

Many of the public issues we face are complex; even experts often disagree about why the problems are occurring, what is going on, and how the problems might be fixed. We ordinary citizens have no chance at all of becoming experts in all the issues we care about, and we strongly dislike having no opinion at all: That just shuts us up or shuts us out.

So, without the benefit of much knowledge we do form opinions. How? Remember one of the research findings:

Specifically, polarization intensifies the impact of party endorsements on opinions, decreases the impact of substantive information and, perhaps ironically, stimulates greater confidence in those—less substantively grounded—opinions. (Druckman and others, 2013)

In a polarized partisan environment, we tend to get our opinions—and our confidence in our opinions–more from our party affiliations than from our own examination of information about issues. I explore how this might work for one issue; see Global Climate Hypothesis.

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