When Common Identities Decrease Trust: An Experimental Study of Partisan Women

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AJPS Author Summary by Samara Klar of the University of Arizona

With a record number of women running for the 2020 Democratic nomination, questions will no doubt arise as to the likelihood that a Democratic woman might entice female Republican voters to support a woman from the opposing party. Each time that a woman has run for national office (for example, Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate in 2008 or Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate in 2008 and 2016), political spectators asked: Will women voters “cross the aisle” to vote for a woman?

Yet, each time, we have seen no evidence that women from either party are willing to do so. Indeed, there is very little evidence at all that women from the mass public form inter-party alliances based on their shared gender identity. This might seem surprising – particularly to those familiar with the Common In-Group Identity Model.

The Common In-Group Identity Model argues that an overarching identity (in this case, being a woman) can unite two competing groups (in this case, Democrats and Republicans). Social psychologists demonstrated these effects in an array of “minimal group settings” and others have found that it appears to hold true in “real-world” settings as well. Why, then, are Democratic women and Republican women reluctant to support one another based on their shared gender identity? I set out to investigate the conditions under which the Common In-Group Identity Model holds and whether it might (or might not) apply to American women who identify as Democrats and Republicans.

A key condition of the Common In-Group Identity Model is that the members of both rival groups must hold a common understanding of what it means to identify with their overarching shared identity. Without this, it simply is not a shared identity at all.

Based on existing work, I expected that Democratic women and Republican women, in fact, hold very different views of what it means to be a woman. To test this, I asked a bipartisan sample of 3000 American women how well the word feminist describes them on a scale ranging from 1 (Extremely well) to 5 (Not at all). Democratic women overwhelmingly identify themselves as feminists: their mean response was 2.47 (somewhere in between Very Well [2] and Somewhat Well [3]). Republican women, on the other hand, do not view themselves as feminists: their mean response was a 3.8 (closer to Not Very Well [4]).

I also asked these women to describe how a typical Republican woman and a typical Democrat woman might view feminism. Women from both sides of the aisle are astonishingly accurate in their estimates of how co-partisan and opposing partisan women feel about this issue. There is a clear and accurate perception that Democratic women think of themselves as feminist and that Republican women do not. In sum, being “a woman” is not an identity group that Democratic and Republican women can agree on – and they are well aware of this divide.

If Democratic women and Republican women do not share a common understanding of what it means to be a woman, then their gender should not unite them. In fact, as scholars have shown in other settings, they should actually be driven further apart when their gender becomes salient. This is what I set out to test.

With a survey experiment, I randomly assigned a large sample of women to read a vignette about either a woman or a man, who identifies with either their own party or the other party, and who supports either an issue that makes gender salient or one that does not. I then asked respondents to evaluate this fictitious character.

My results show that gender does not unite women from opposing parties but, in fact, increases their mutual distrust when gender is salient. To be more specific, I find that – when gender is salient – women hold more negative views of women from the opposing party than they do of men from the opposing party. When gender was not salient, however, women no longer penalized women more than they penalized men for identifying with the opposing party.

My work helps us to understand why we do not tend to find political solidarity among women who identify with opposing parties: not only do they disagree about politics but they also tend to disagree about their gender identity. Making gender salient thus exacerbates the divide.

I hope this study also helps to add nuance to our collective understanding of identity politics. Demographic identity groups are not homogeneous voting blocs. This lesson is not exclusive to women but should be taken into account when we think through the political behavior of any subset of the American public. To an outsider, it might appear that a group of individuals objectively shares a common identity, but if they do not hold a common understanding of what that identity means to them then they do not share an identity at all. If we wish to understand how identities influence political attitudes and behaviors, we cannot neglect the nuances that exist with identity groups.

About the Author: Samara Klar of the University of Arizona has authored the article “When Common Identities Decrease Trust: An Experimental Study of Partisan Women(doi/10.1111/ajps.12366) which was published in the July 2018 issue of the American Journal of Political Science and will be awarded the AJPS Best Article Award at the 2019 MPSA Conference. 

Both this article and the co-winning AJPS Best Paper Award article “Paths of Recruitment: Rational Social Prospecting in Petition Canvassing” (doi/10.1111/ajps.12305) are currently free to access through April 2019. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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