One of the more intriguing “factoids” that emerged during 2019 was the shift in parental views on intermarriage. Objections to their children marrying across racial or religious lines continued to diminish; however, the proportion of people who didn’t want their children marrying across political lines increased substantially. In fact, more parents would object to their child marrying into a family with a different political persuasion than would be upset by an inter-racial union.
Political identity has become a potent–albeit not perfect– marker of a range of attitudes about race, women’s rights, economic justice, and (as one political scientist has quipped) one’s favorite grocery store.
Is the deepening animosity between Democrats and Republicans based on genuine differences over policy and ideology or is it a form of tribal warfare rooted in an atavistic us-versus-them mentality?
Is American political conflict relatively content-free — emotionally motivated electoral competition — or is it primarily a war of ideas, a matter of feuding visions both of what America is and what it should become?
Edsell quotes Lilliana Mason, a leading scholar of partisanship.
“Group victory is a powerful prize,” Mason writes, “and American partisans have increasingly seen that as more important than the practical matter of governing a nation.”
The recent party-line vote on Impeachment in the House of Representatives certainly supports Mason’s thesis. For that matter, the importance of group victory to partisans is all that can explain the behavior of Republicans in both the House and Senate during Trump’s Presidency; they have consistently put the interests of their party above the interests of the nation and the concerns of governance.
Edsell also quotes Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford, for the proposition that “policy preferences are driven more by partisans’ eagerness to support their party rather than considered analysis of the pros and cons of opposing positions on any given issue.”
Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory, disagrees. He doesn’t believe that partisanship dictates ideological and policy decisions; instead, he argues that ideological differences drive polarization.
Democratic and Republican voters today hold far more distinctive views across a wide range of issues than they did in the past. And it is among those Democrats and Republicans who hold views typical for their party, that is liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, that dislike of the opposing party is strongest.
Alexander Theodoridis is a political scientist at the University of California-Merced. He appears to think it goes both ways–that people originally identify with a party based on ideological compatibility, but then “adjust” or harden their positions in response to partisan messaging:
For most people, party identity appears to be far more central and salient than particular issue positions. We see increasing evidence of people adjusting their issue positions or priorities to fit their party allegiance, more than the reverse. We are very good at rationalizing away cognitive dissonance. More important than this chicken-or-egg question is the reality that ideology and party have become very highly sorted today. Liberal and Conservative are now tantamount to Democrat and Republican, respectively. That was not always the case. Furthermore, all sorts of descriptive and dispositional features (ranging from religion and race to personality type and worldview) are also more correlated with political party than they were in the past. All this heightens the us-versus-them nature of modern hyperpolarization.
Whichever came first, we are now at a point where most Republicans and Democrats inhabit different realities, informed by different “facts,” and espouse distinctly different values.
When disagreements are about policy, compromise is possible. When those disagreements are about morality, not so much.