affective polarization is symmetrical

Shanto Iyengar and colleagues write, “Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines, or even to partner with opponents in a variety of other activities. This phenomenon of animosity between the parties is known as affective polarization.”*

Although affective polarization is far from our only problem, it does make public deliberation more difficult and hence undermines democracy. It is a particular problem for people who would like to build up public institutions: progressives. A minimal state doesn’t require much public comity, but an ambitious one does.

Iyengar and colleagues treat affective polarization as symmetrical, depicting both parties as equally affected. Based on the graphs below (which I contribute), I think that is fair.

The first one shows that in the late 1970s, Democrats and Republicans both rated the other party at almost 50 on a 1-100 scale (the ANES’ “feeling thermometer”). You could describe their feelings about the other side as neutral. Now both sides’ ratings are down to the mid-twenties on the same scale. You could call that hostility. The downward trend is pretty consistent from 1990-2016, across Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

This second graph is more dramatic still. It shows the percentage of Democrats and Republicans who chose to rate the opposite party at zero on the 0-100 scale. For both sides, that proportion has risen from very low in the late 1970s to about one in four people today. Again, the trend is linear all the way through the Bush and Obama years. More Democrats have rated Republicans at zero than vice-versa.

These graphs show ratings of the parties, not of party members. Ratings of people are better for this purpose, but ANES stopped asking that in the 1980s and now asks only about the parties. However, during the period when they asked the same respondents about both parties and party members, the correlations were high (>.75). Therefore, I think these lines are good proxy measures for how people feel about other people across party lines.

Independents–including leaners–began this period rating both parties above 50 on a 0-100 scale. Their ratings have fallen in parallel, although not as steeply as the partisans’ ratings of each other; and they have viewed Democrats more favorably than Republicans.

*Iyengar, S., Lelkes, Y., Levendusky, M., Malhotra, N. and Westwood, S.J., 2019. The origins and consequences of affective polarization in the United States. Annual Review of Political Science, 22, pp.129-146. See also: promoting democracy and reducing polarization; marginalizing views in a time of polarization; empathy boosts polarization; what is polarization and when is it bad?; civic education in a time of inequality and polarization, etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.