Affective Polarization: Understanding Division in American Politics


Affective polarization is the degree to which
Democrats and Republicans in the United States like or dislike one another. It’s measured by the degree to which Democrats
and Republicans are willing to marry one another, whether they would be happy or unhappy if
their child married someone from the other side, whether or not they’re willing to discriminate
against the other side or avoid them. In the 1960s, roughly five percent of Americans
said they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the other party. Today, that number stands at over 30 percent. So there’s been a five-fold increase in the
number of people that would be unhappy if this happened. We know that when people think about themselves
as Democrats or Republicans, what they’re really thinking about is their social group. The same way someone might think about their
race or their religion or their gender – what they identify with – a long line of social
psychology literature says when you do this, you start, not thinking about issues but thinking
about feelings, about how I feel towards Democrats if I’m a Republican, or vice versa if I’m
a Democrat. At the same time that affective polarization
was on the rise, you also saw a dramatic change in the media environment and more opportunities
for people to seal themselves off from hearing the other side. One perspective is that the new information
environment – the internet, cable tv, outrage radio – has been fueling affective polarization. Another potential root of polarization, and
one that I’m now exploring in a working paper, is whether the rise of close elections have
exacerbated the problem. What we’ve seen is an increase in very close
elections across the U.S., elections that are won by one percentage point or two. A coinflip election. When elections are very close, competitors
feel like they have more to win or lose. So they fight the campaign harder. The campaigns become more toxic. There’s more spending. There’s more candidate attack ads. They’re not attacking candidates on the issues
– they’re attacking candidates on their character. All this leads to a more toxic information
environment, as we call it, which could exacerbate polarization. So what we find is that people who live in
districts that became more competitive because of redistricting have become more affectively
polarized. My own belief is that affective polarization
is elite-driven, that it’s caused by politicians and people following politicians. Politicians are the leaders of their group. So when politicians use less vitriolic language,
people will stop doing so as well. So in my mind, the solution is different leadership.

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