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It’s pretty rare for me to say, “Goodness, look at what Stanford’s Chandler Chair of Communication has to say!” And in truth, I haven’t looked closely at the methodology of this paper, and even if it’s flawless, let’s wait to see if it can be replicated. Still, the claim they’re making is interesting:
When defined in terms of social identity and affect toward co-partisans and opposing partisans, the polarization of the American electorate has dramatically increased. We document the scope and consequences of affective polarization of partisans using implicit, explicit and behavioral indicators. Our evidence demonstrates that hostile feelings for the opposing party are ingrained or automatic in voters’ minds, and that affective polarization based on party is just as strong as polarization based on race. We further show that party cues exert powerful effects on non-political judgments and behaviors. Partisans discriminate against opposing partisans, and do so to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race. 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.
Among the claims they make are these: “A standard measure of social distance — parents’ displeasure over the prospects of their offspring marrying into a family with a different party affiliation — shows startling increases in the United States” since the 1980s.” Moreover, they claim, data from online dating sites suggest that “marital selection based on partisanship exceeds selection based on physical (e.g. body shape) or personality attributes.”
This is of course partly gibberish: Party affiliation can’t be disambiguated from ‘personality attributes’ unless you genuinely believe there’s no difference at all between the parties.
But what’s interesting is that they used the Implicit Association Test on a sample of 2,000 adults. There’s a lot of controversy about this test, but it’s thought to measure attitudes that people claim not to have, or know they shouldn’t have. You may remember it from the “Are you a closet racist” tests that circulate online.
This is what they found:
The spread between Democrats and Republicans on the partisan D-score was massive (t(824.66) = 17.68, p<.001), with the Republicans averaging .27 (se = .02), the Democrats -.23 (se = .02), and Independents -.02 (.02). In the case of implicit racial bias, African Americans showed a preference for African Americans (D-score = -.09, se = .02), while whites displayed a somewhat stronger in-group preference (D-score = .16, se = .01). Hispanics and Asians both revealed a slight preference for whites over blacks. Consistent with previous research, the black-white difference in implicit bias was substantial (t(740.10) = 11.04, p<.001), but the effect size for race (Cohen’s d = .61) was not nearly as strong as the corresponding effect of party (Cohen’s d = .95).
Surprised by this, they tried randomly assigning 1,021 participants to perform two tasks. The first required them to choose between a Democrat and Republican; the second required choosing between a European American and an African American. They were asked to read the resumes of a pair of graduating high school seniors and decide to whom to award a scholarship:
Depending on the task to which they were assigned, participants were exposed to candidates with either a partisan affiliation (cued through membership in a partisan extracurricular group), or a racial identity (cued through a stereotypical African American/European American name and membership in an extracurricular group)
And whaddya know:
In the partisan task approximately 80% of partisans (both Democrats and Republicans) selected their in-party candidate. Democratic leaners showed a stronger preference for the Democratic candidate than Republican leaners showed for the Republican candidate, though both groups displayed the in-party preference (80.4% and 69.2% respectively). Independents showed a slight preference for the Democratic candidate (57.9%). In-group selection on the basis of race was confined to African Americans (73.1% selecting the African American), with European Americans showing a small preference for the African American candidate (55.8% selecting the African American).
Candidate qualification had no significant effect on winner selection. Even when the candidate from the opposing party was more qualified, the participants gave the scholarship to their co-partisans:
When the Republican was more qualified than the Democrat, the probability of a Democrat selecting the Republican candidate was only .30 (95% confidence interval), when both candidates were equally qualified the probability of a Democrat selecting the Republican candidate fell to .21 (95% confidence interval), and when the Democrat was most qualified the probability of a Democrat selecting the Republican candidate was a meager .14. Similarly, when the Democrat was more qualified, the probability of a Republican selecting the Democrat was only .15 (95% confidence interval), when the two candidates were equally qualified the probability of a Republican selecting the Democrat candidate was .21 (95% confidence interval), and when the Republican was most qualified the probability of Republicans selecting the Democrat candidate was .21 (95% confidence interval). The probability of a partisan selecting an out-party candidate never rose above .3 and the coefficients for the various interaction terms between participant partisan affiliation and candidate qualifications were never significant; partisanship simply trumped academic excellence in this task.
What happened when they tried the experiment with race, rather than partisanship?
The results of the race manipulation showed generally weaker effects of outgroup bias. Most African American and European American participants selected the African American candidate. African Americans were significantly more likely than European Americans to select the African American candidate (b=.95, se=.36, p<.01). However, there was an overall tendency to select the European American as the winner when she was the more qualified candidate (b=-.93, se=.30, p<.01). There were no significant interactions between participant race and candidate qualifications.
They then tried another experiment: trust and dictator games:
In the trust game, Player 1 is given an initial endowment ($10) and instructed that she is free to give some, all, or none to Player 2 (said to be a member of a designated group). She is further informed that the researcher will triple the amount transferred to Player 2, who will have a chance to transfer an amount back to Player 1 (though Player 2 is under no obligation to return any money). The dictator game is an abbreviated version in which there is no opportunity for Player 2 to return funds to Player 1 and where the amount transferred is not tripled by the researcher. Since there is no opportunity for Player 1 to observe the strategy of Player 2, variation in the amount Player 1 allocates to different categories of Player 2 in the dictator game is attributable only to group dislike and prejudice.
And whaddya know:
In both versions of the game, players were more generous toward co-partisans, but not co-ethnics. The average amount allocated to co-partisans in the trust game was $4.58 (95% confidence interval [4.33, 4.83]) representing a “bonus” of some ten percent over the average allocation of $4.17. In the dictator game, co-partisans were awarded twenty-four percent over the average allocation.
Their conclusion may be an overstretch, but it’s still an interesting thought:
… our evidence documents a significant shift in the relationship between American voters and their parties. Fifty years ago, comparative party researchers described American parties as relatively weak, at least by the standards of European “mass membership” parties. The prototypical instance of the latter category was a party “membership in which is bound up in all aspects of the individual’s life.” By this standard, American parties have undergone a significant “role reversal.” Today, the sense of partisan identification is all encompassing and affects behavior in both political and non-political contexts.
A big problem with the study is that inherently, they seem to be assuming that the parties don’t genuinely stand for anything. Now, I would have said this was ridiculous. But let’s face it: a Democrat with vile manners has managed to soar to the top of the GOP polls. Can’t really wish that fact away.
As I said, let’s see if these studies can be replicated. If they can, though, they’d make some sense of the frustration I feel when reading the news. The other day, I wrote about this:
I’m being driven insane by the way all journalism now is partisan journalism. I have to fact-check everything I read for myself — which is hugely time-consuming — and half the time, when I look up the original document or source material to which a piece of journalism alludes, I find it said nothing of the sort.
Genferei replied, and it’s a reasonable rebuttal:
At least now you can fact-check things yourself. You can look at the source document, or read another story from a different outlet about the same events. Were the gin-swilling, chain-smoking, hard-bitten reporters of The Golden Age Of Journalism (R) really paragons of unvarnished, fact-checked truth? Or was what they said all you got, so no point worrying about what ‘reality’ really was?
This is true. But those gin-swilling, chain-smoking, hard-bitten reporters — and I was once one of them, so I know — certainly weren’t as nakedly and obviously partisan. We at least paid lip-service to the virtue of “non-partisanship.” And as I recall, there really was a belief that politics stopped at the water’s edge. To play politics with American national security was, truly, held to be un-American.
Does it seem to you that partisanship is now the deepest social cleavage in America? If so what do you think will be the consequences of losing this amount of social trust?