Partisanship as Social Identity

From the Editors | The politics that ate America (identities and all) | Issue 11 | December 6, 2021

In this issue of TPP in Print, we examine that monster called political identity which is steadily absorbing or erasing all other identities (ethnic, religious, regional, local) that formerly characterized a diverse, complex, interlocking American society. Our recent TPP podcast guest, Dr. Dominic Packer, co-author of The Power of Us, put it best.

 “One of the tragedies about political polarization is we lose a lot of complexity of identity, Packer (professor of psychology at Lehigh University) tells us. “Your political identity doesn’t have to be exactly the same as your religious identity or your occupational identity or the hobbies you have. But in a polarized society, they all tend to collapse into one thing.” 

Which is to say Americans are increasingly more connected to their political identities than other social identities, such as race, gender, religion, and class that once had held huge importance. Over time these identities, like so many other things American, have been subsumed if not consumed by our two major political party identities, Democrat or Republican, Blue or Red, Liberal or Conservative, with little shade, nuance or overlap remaining. 

We so often hear that this or that issue or development has been politicized that it would be surprising to discuss anything of importance not yet politized. This politicization of all things is partially due to what is called the “endowment effect,” where people overvalue things they choose themselves. 

For example, we value friends over colleagues at work, though we may spend less time with them. We value the apartment we select over the dorm room assigned, and the playlist we curate over what Spotify, Apple, or Alexa provide. Once a political identity is selected it is then cemented over time by motivated reasoning, geographic polarization, and partisan media silos, among other forces.

Americans often hold that their political identity is more important than identities born into (like race or ethnic group) because they believe that chosen identity is based on good judgment and values. Unfortunately, they often also conclude that those who have chosen a different political identity must have done so because they lack good judgment and values. Hence, the potential for othering and polarization.

Partisanship & Identity in History

Political identity was not always so important to Americans. In the past, other types of identities were more salient. For example, mass immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries made ethnic and religious identity more important than political identity. There were ethnic associations, clubs, and societies that helped recent immigrants find housing and employment in the US. Then, over time, these ethnic and religious minorities formed allegiances with parties to enhance their power and advance the interests of their communities. 

As immigrant communities began to be assimilated in the latter half of the 20th century, ethnic identities waned yet many Americans retained political allegiances from their immigrant ancestors. This resulted in many Americans crudely “sorted” into our two “big tent” parties. And the fit was and is not always a snug one. For example..

  • Voters who may have been social conservatives due to their Catholicism yet who identify Democratic because their parents or grandparents were Irish immigrants. 
  • Or recent immigrants from Latin America who are both pro-life and pro-social justice movements, thus finding neither of the two major parties are a comfortable fit. 

At the same time, though, these “cross-pressured” voters can have a moderating effect on parties precisely because they do not fit the ideological mold. 

The Big Identity Sort

As ethnic and religious identities continued to decrease in salience over the past several decades, Americans have gradually migrated toward the party that most closely matches ideological identification, making ideology more a social identity more than a consistent set of beliefs for most Americans.

However, Americans  have not been sorting merely by ideology but other social identities as well, especially race, religion and class. While racial minorities have long skewed heavily Democratic, whites— especially less-educated ones— increasingly identify as Republicans.

Furthermore, while both parties used to have significant Christian majorities, a recent, significant increase in Americans identifying as non-religious has been concentrated among Democrats while highly religious Americans are more likely to identify as Republicans.

Causality Reversed: Politics Now Shapes Other Identities 

Once upon a time, social identities (like race, ethnicity, and religion) guided partisan identification. But today partisan leanings seem to shape other social identities, reversing the direction of causation in the 21st century from that of the 19th and 20th. 

Over time, Republicans who identify as conservatives have been more likely to also start identifying as born-again Christians,  while the opposite has been true for liberal-identifying Democrats.

More specifically, Trump supporters in recent elections have begun identifying as evangelical or “born again” in large numbers, potentially shaping the future of the GOP.

Both trends have formed the current environment in which major social identities are highly aligned with political identity. This has greatly decreased the presence of those “cross-cutting cleavages” that help shape a more civil and cohesive society.  

Take, for example, a highly-religious Democrat who has a cross-cutting religious identity that does not align with her partisan identity. As a result, she may be less hostile to those who do not share her partisan identity because they may be more likely to share her religious identity.

Not only does the alignment of multiple major identities increase the potential for hostility towards the opposite party, but it remains relatively unchecked due to a lack of a social norm against partisan hostility (relative to hostility towards other social out-groups)

The natural tendency towards intergroup conflict becomes inflamed when the distinction between groups is seen as consequential (like zero sum politics), when the groups are competing for finite resources (like legislative power), and when the groups’ interests are perceived as being mutually exclusive (starkly opposing policy agendas). 

Because Americans of different parties tend to live apart from each other,  they are also far less likely to socialize. In fact, about 60% of Americans say they have no more than a few friends from the other party. 

Depressingly, if not surprisingly, there’s overwhelming evidence that many Americans downright dislike people from the other party, as evidenced by the many cases of “partisan schadenfreude.” 

Many Democrats, for example, believe that Republican victims of natural disasters “got what they deserve” for not supporting climate change mitigation efforts. 

There is also  credible reporting that the Trump administration was slow to react to the initial arrival of COVID in the US in primarily blue states, such as  Washington, California, Massachusetts, and New York. 

Political parties have also fed into and capitalized upon the alignment of political identity with other social identities. While much furor—from inside and outside the party—has been directed towards Democrats’ use of “identity politics” in recent years, it’s also apparent that Republicans have relied on identity politics themselves.

The result is polarizing identity politics also known as tribalism.  ““At different times in the past,” Amy Chua observed in her widely praised 2018 book, Political Tribes, “both the American Left and the American Right have stood for group-transcending values. Neither does today.”

From the Podcast

Thomas Edsall

“That’s very hard. One problem is that people mesh their identities in their partisanship. It’s not just that you’re a Democrat or Republican, but if you’re a Democrat, you’re also pro-choice; if you’re a Republican you’re anti-abortion; if you’re orthodox religious, you tend very much to be a Republican. If you’re an atheist, you tend to be a Democrat. These divides have shaped people’s views so that their whole sense of who they are gets wrapped up in being a Democrat or Republican. And when that happens, it turns the opposition into an enemy.”

Jay Van Bavel

“There’s been a couple of studies where they have looked at what happens when certain cults predict the end of the world and …what happens the day that the prediction doesn’t come true. What you might expect is that cult members should update their beliefs. They should be like, ‘Oh my goodness, this cult was totally wrong. What was I thinking? I’ve got to rebuild my life and I’ve got to move, I’ve got to leave this cult.’ But that’s not what happens! In fact, a couple of studies have found that, if anything, the opposite happens. They immediately start to look for rationalizations. They actually double down on this identity. And in one of these studies, they found that people actually started proselytizing more. They actually felt motivated to go tell the media that they had saved the world, and try to convince other people to join the cult. And so there’s a kernel of that psychology in human nature that applies to all kinds of identities we have.”

Abigail Marsh

“Americans actually have very moderate opinions, especially if you can ask them outside of the context of a survey that sparks their ideological identity. We certainly hear a lot more from the people on the extremes for a variety of reasons. And what’s interesting is that you see a lot more melding of groups as a function of things like race and religion than you did 50 years ago, but we’ve sorted a lot more along political lines. It used to be the case that people would be less comfortable having dinner with people of other races. And now people say they’re less comfortable having dinner with people from different political backgrounds.”

What We’re Reading

Political Psychology Goes Mainstream

Why ‘Evangelical’ Is Becoming Another Word for ‘Republican’ New York Times

Single? Obsessed with your political identity? Let the Web help. Washington Post

How Identity Not Issues Explains the Partisan Divide Scientific American

Identity in the News

Who Does Trump’s White Identity Politics Reach The Atlantic

Ideological Identity Adds Fuel to Political Disagreements Psychology Today

Can Liberal Democracies Survive Identity Politics? The Economist

How Trump Turned the Pandemic Into Identity Politics The Bulwark

Top Blogs & Reports on Identity Politics

Persuasion| Researcher and commentator Yascha Mounk founded this publication to foster tolerance of intellectual diversity and encourage civil, rational persuasion of others over the mocking, silencing, and closing of minds that has become the norm on many a social media platform.

Mending Fractured Relationships| Author Karen Tibbals writes about how to have more constructive, civil conversations and repair relationships that have been damaged by conversations that spun out of control.

Moral Understanding| UNC professor Kurt Gray writes on the psychology of morality and why it leads people to see politics as “good-vs-evil.”

The Theory of Enchantment| Racial identity has been perhaps the single most salient identity division in American society throughout the nation’s history. Racial identity is tightly tied to political identity. Speaker and activist Chloe Valdary blogs her thoughts about how to approach divisive issues that inspire anger, like racial politics, in a more constructive way.

More In Common| This group identified seven “Hidden Tribes” of American political actors who awkwardly navigate the two-party landscape.

Partners in Purple

There are numerous research labs doing cutting-edge work on the issue of political identity, too many to mention in this newsletter. But here’s a sampling of research efforts currently underway.

Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory
This lab researches the neurological underpinnings of political identity. In this study, they found that on average Republicans’ and Democrats’ brains responded differently to a political message that included threatening, moral-emotional language of the type that is common in contemporary political discourse. The different neurological responses in turn predicted different interpretations of the same message.
NYU’s Social Identity and Morality Lab
It all begins with an idea. Maybe you want to launch a business. Maybe you want to turn a hobby into something more. Or maybe you have a creative project to share with the world. Whatever it is, the way you tell your story online can make all the difference.
Humboldt State University Social Identity Lab
Led by Amber Gaffney, this lab’s publications cover a variety of ways that social identities affect political attitudes and behavior.
Cambridge Political Psychology Lab
This lab studies the psychology of politics and polarization from a British perspective. Under the direction of Sander van der Linden, their work is broadly applicable to politics around the world, but understandably focuses on the unique dynamic of British politics.

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