Episode 12: Are Americans Becoming Tribal, with Identity Politics Trumping All?
Democrats and Republicans are sorting ideologically and socially and we’re developing more negative opinions of one another. Are we dividing into two irreconcilable tribes—or just tuning out both parties? Liliana Mason talks about new research showing our partisan identity is stronger when our ethnic, religious, and ideological identities are strong and linked to our party’s predominant groups. But John Barry Ryan says many citizens dislike both parties and want to tune out of politics, hating the other party only a bit more than their own.
The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.
Matt Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, are Americans becoming tribal with identity politics trumping all? For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Democrats and Republicans are sorting ideologically and socially, and we’re developing more negative opinions of one another. Are we dividing into two irreconcilable tribes or just tuning out both parties? A news study finds that partisan identity is stronger when people’s ethnic, religious, and ideological identities are strong and linked to their party’s predominant groups.
I talked to Lilliana Mason of the University of Maryland, co-author with Julie Wronski of “One Tribe To Bind Them All, How Our Social Group Attachments Strengthen Partisanship,” published in Political Psychology, about the rise of tribalism. But, perhaps it’s a bit overblown, with many citizens just disliking both parties.
I also talked to John Barry Ryan of Stony Brook University about new research on whether we now fear our children marrying someone from the other party. He is co-author with Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov of “Affective Polarization or Partisan Disdain: Untangling a Dislike for the Opposing Party from a Dislike Of Partisanship” in Public Opinion Quarterly. The conventional wisdom is that we are divided by issues with Democrats the party of identity politics.
But Lilliana Mason says partisanship is tied to strong, overlapping group identities on both sides.
Lilliana Mason: Our social identities build us a partisan identity, and the more we are members of a kind of correct group, which means the groups that are associated with our parties, the stronger we feel attached to our parties. And then, the second thing that we found is that there was actually an asymmetry in some of our models between Democrats and Republicans, so Republicans ended up looking more sensitive. They came up as more sensitive to violation of being in the party aligned group.
Matt Grossmann: Two divided social group coalitions now represent a troubling change in the party system.
Lilliana Mason: This assumption is that the American party system is stable and reliable partly because we have a lot of cross-cutting identities. So, your next door neighbor might not be in the same party as you, but you might go to the same church. And so, that helps us to understand our partisan opponents in a way that made them kind of more human and more relatable.
What’s really been happening over the past few decades, really since the ’70s, is that these groups that used to be cross-cutting for us has sort of moved into alignment with our parties.
Today, it’s much less frequent that an out group partisan is also a member of our church or is also a member of some organization that we’re in. So, we have less social and cultural contact with people who are not in our party.
Matt Grossmann: Mason and Wronski measured social sorting in two ways, finding it mattered more if you were objectively in a group that was tied to each party.
Lilliana Mason: We think about…we call it sorting, which is just sort of the mashing between your social groups and your priority, and so we think of it in two ways. One is objective sorting, which means, are you a member of the groups that are associated with your party, regardless of whether or not you understand what those matches are supposed to be? And then, there’s subjective sorting, which means, do you feel close to groups that you also think are associated with your party?
The first one is sort of an implicit way of thinking about sorting because people are identified with their racial and religious and ideological group, and those groups match their party and they generally maybe feel closer to their party without necessarily consciously knowing that that’s why. So, they do.
We do find that that’s the case.
The subjective measure is that you can feel close to individual social groups that you are in, and you can also think that those groups are connected to your party, whether or not you’re correct.
So, people might actually think that their racial group is connected to their party wrongly. They might actually be wrong about it. But regardless, if you feel like your party matches your own group, then that’s subjective for it. Actually, what we found was that the objective measure (are you closely affiliated with the groups that objectively match your party) had a stronger effect than the subjective explicit understanding of, are your groups close to your party?
Matt Grossmann: They were predicting whether you like your own party members.
Lilliana Mason: The measure of in-party support generally is the field thermometer, which ranges from zero to a hundred (zero is when you feel the most coldly towards your group and one hundred is you feel the most warmly towards your group), and it’s a relatively common measure of your sort of feelings toward the group or approval of the group.
Really, the reason that we use that measure was that we wanted to get at, not necessarily the traditional seven-point scale of partisanship, but we wanted to see whether being member of these matched groups increased one’s affection for one’s party? You actually like people better who are in your party if you are a member of these groups.
Matt Grossmann: They found Republicans normally had lower views of their own party, but actually were more affected by their overlapping identities.
Lilliana Mason: There is a difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of the social makeup of the two parties, and I think this is really where we’re finding this extra sensitivity to identity among Republicans.
If you think about the Democratic party, what we’ve found in most of our examples was that the majority of Democrats are white and in one of our samples, the majority of Democrats were also Christian. But white and Christian are not Democratic party link identities.
So, what happens is within the Democratic party, people tend to feel more cross pressures in general and Democrats seem to be more comfortable with and exposed to cross pressures in the sense that there are plenty of people in their party who are not like them socially.
There are fewer identities that match with the republican party. For Republicans, the identities that match with being Republican are white and Christian and conservative. There aren’t as many people in the Republican party who don’t match those three particular categories.
Matt Grossmann: It wasn’t enough just to be a white Christian republican or a minority atheist democrat. You needed to feel close to your groups to make it matter.
Lilliana Mason: It is absolutely dependent on feeling connected to that group that you’re in. So, Julie Wronski, my co-author and I, actually had a paper at a conference last year where we looked at the effects of just simply belonging to these groups…and it had no effect at all. So, if you are objectively a member of a group, but you don’t identify as a member of that group, it doesn’t have any effect on your party identity.
Matt Grossmann: Religious and ideological identities, of course, are associated with viewpoints, but Mason says they matter more as social group identifiers.
Lilliana Mason: Even among people who have very unconstrained, conflicting issue positions or consistently moderate issue positions, the identification with a group called liberals or conservatives can make people really dislike their ideological opponents. So, liberals who feel strongly identified as liberal, even if they have very moderate policy attitude, they really hate conservatives. And conservatives who feel very strongly identified as conservatives, even if they have moderate policy attitude, they really hate liberals.
Matt Grossmann: With the help of the party elites, sorting and partisanship are increasing over time, and Mason says that’s no coincidence.
Lilliana Mason: This is definitely something that has been changing over time. During the ’70s and ’80s, we had a lot more cross-cutting identities than we have now and part of that is us having better media and understanding which party represents each group. But also part of it is the parties themselves making it very clear, either by Democratic party supporting the Civil Rights Act or the Republican party aligning themselves with the Christian Right in the ’80s and ’90s, making it clear that Christians belong in the Republican party.
So, there were party actions that communicated information. And then gradually over time, people started making sure that they were in the party that represented their group.
Matt Grossmann: But, John Barry Ryan says his new research with Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov finds a lot of people who are tuning out of the partisan tribes.
John Barry Ryan: For most people, politics isn’t this central aspect of their life and because it’s not the most central aspect of their life, they don’t have these polarized views about the other party in the same sort of way.
And when I talk about polarization here, what’s important to note is that I don’t necessarily mean issue position. I mean what political science calls affective polarization. So, it’s this sort of emotional polarization.
And so, one of the ways that people have shown this is by asking this question, “How would you feel if your child married someone from the other party?” And there’s no doubt that the number of people who say they would be unhappy with that has increased, especially in recent years.
What we’ve done with our experiment is add a little bit of context to that question, talking about how much they would actually talk about politics. Would they talk about it a lot? Would they talk about it rarely? What would you think about marrying someone from your own party?
You see, if the person’s in the other party, and they’re not going to talk about politics that much. They really don’t care, and at the same time, if you have somebody who’s going to marry someone from your own party and they’re going to talk about politics a lot, that sometimes will turn a lot of people off, right?
So, the main takeaway is this idea that for the bulk of Americans, politics isn’t the central motivating identity, but for a certain group of people, it is, and those people post more on Twitter, are more likely to run for office. Because of that, it seems this sort of observation bias makes it seem like that’s the way everybody is about politics…and it just isn’t.
Matt Grossmann: Ryan says a lot of people no longer like their own party.
John Barry Ryan: The turn against your own party has increased. That’s the thing that’s really changed: people turning against their own party saying, “I don’t like my party,” and if you look at the ANS data, it doesn’t appear that the reason is because they aren’t liberal or conservative now, especially on the Republican side. It’s probably that they’re too conservative or too inflexible.
Matt Grossmann: They tested whether people really steadfastly opposed their kids marrying someone from the other party with an experiment.
John Barry Ryan: We conducted this experiment in two phases. We conducted an experiment in January 2016 and then the summer of 2016 around the time of the convention. What we do is we ask people how would they feel about marrying someone from the Democrat party or vice versa. And that’s all we tell this group. From another group, we tell them that the child is going to really talk about politics, or the child-in-law will rarely talk about politics. In another group, we tell them the child-in-law will frequently talk about politics.
Matt Grossmann: And they found that a lot of people were not very concerned.
John Barry Ryan: The majority answer in a lot of these cases is, “It makes me neither happy nor unhappy, right?” And so, if that’s the case, we could imagine that when there’s an event that requires the attention of the public to come up and say, “Hey, government, do something about that,” that those people would rise up and would sort of put pressure on government. Then there are other times in which it’s sort of like, things are sort of going okay, but there are tweaks that could happen, but they’re not necessary, that they won’t argue that those things are life and death.
Matt Grossmann: Around one quarter of strong partisans and 10 percent of the rest were more unhappy with the opposite party marriage, even if the party partners rarely discussed politics, but Ryan isn’t sure whether they would actually cause family drama.
John Barry Ryan: The problem, right, with the hypothetical experiment is that people can say certain things and just sort of answer the question without actually having to do the thing that the question is referring them to. 538 pushed the question from Democrats and Republicans to baseball teams: “I am a San Francisco Giants fan and I have a daughter and if she married somebody who was a Dodgers fan, this would make me very unhappy.” You’d get the same sort of levels that you get for these partisan questions, right?
I think that part of his point of his sort of blog post was, “Well, you know, no one would say that the great dividing line in the United States is baseball team preference,” but you’re just asking people, “Well, what would you prefer?” And I will prefer to not have a game versus the Giants and Dodgers and watch my son-in-law happy about it, happy with … going with my team losing. And so there’s that, right?
But I think the other thing that matters here is that this separates it a little bit from the baseball example, and then I guess the points there being like, “But, if my daughter really loves the guy and he’s a good guy, the fact that he’s from Los Angeles, I will overlook that,” right?
But, what happens with the politics thing is I think there is something that is being shown here, right? It’s not that they would actually stand at the alter and stop the kid of marrying. It is this question of, “If all you’ve given me is that this person is a Republican or this person is a Democrat, I am now going to picture in my head who that person is…and you know what? I don’t like that picture of that person.”
Matt Grossmann: Ryan agrees with Mason that strong partisans may not like the social stereotype of the other party.
John Barry Ryan: If you hang around with Democrats, you think the Republicans are really extreme, right? And so, there are these stereotypes that people have in the parties and really what the questions are showing is, “What do you think of the stereotypical Democrat or Republican?” And I think it is true that you do have this sort of group of people who really have an affective dislike to the stereotype of a Democrat or Republican.
Matt Grossmann: They found only half of people like their own party and dislike the other party with less conservative republicans more frustrated with their own party.
John Barry Ryan: If you are a Republican, and especially with Republicans with the ANS data, you have to be concerned that I can’t count on these people showing up, right? And so, you lose in Alabama. You lose in a lot of these special elections. But, on the other hand, right, it’s not so high in terms of people who dislike their own party, that you can’t use the fact that they still don’t like the Democrats to sort of at least activate them when they were going to show up anyway, right?
So, you’ll still get them to vote for Trump and hold their nose while doing it.
Matt Grossmann: Mason says it will be hard to get the parties out of increased social sorting, but it could change with either a rift or a shift in response to losing.
Lilliana Mason: There has to be some limit to it. This is something that is … it clearly changes over time. We have had very cross-cutting identities just 40 years ago and now we have extremely sorted identities and it’s not unrealistic to think that maybe we’ll have cross-cutting identities again someday, and that can happen by seeing a major rift in one of the two parties where half of one party starts voting with the other party and then our cues become unclear and people aren’t exactly sure who represents who. That’s one way out of it.
Matt Grossmann: Ryan wants to find out how much people’s dislike of their own party might be contributing to the dislike of the other.
John Barry Ryan: If I say I’m a Democrat and then I also say I don’t really like the Democratic party that much, well then, how do I justify being a Democrat if I dislike the Republican party exactly the same amount? So I had to say then, is I like the Republican party even less, right? So, you might expect sort of parallel lines sloping down even if all this is really changing is people’s aspect toward their own party is going down.
Matt Grossmann: Mason also wants to further investigate out party dislike, but thinks it might come down to opposing social groups.
Lilliana Mason: Does our dislike of our other social out groups actually predict dislike of our out group party? Can we say that hating our out party is driven largely by hating the groups that make up the party? Or is it actually disagreeing with them over what the government should do? And so, I think it’s important just to kind of tease apart, at this point, are we having these partisan battles because we disagree with each other or are we having these partisan battles because we really don’t like the social content of the other party and they’re people who aren’t like us and we don’t understand that?
Matt Grossmann: Ryan’s next step is to see whether we are reacting to the tribalist tendencies in our media.
John Barry Ryan: What is the impact of media, but also the sort of new technologies on affective polarization, right? So, there have been studies that show, as mentioning of polarization goes up, in the news, people feel they’re more polarized, right? And so, you have that sort of aspect happening and there’s also studies that show that the people who post about politics on Twitter tend to be the most sort extreme. You sort of wonder, right, if part of the reason that you have sort of even mild affective polarization taking place, is because the stereotypes of the partisans are driven by these people who post on social media and who are belligerent in their positions.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Research Digest is available bi-weekly from Niskanen Center on iTunes. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Lilliana Mason and John Barry Ryan for joining me. Join us next time to find out how public opinion and parties in the states affect our policy differences.