The Policy Basis of Measured Partisan Animosity in the United States

The forthcoming article “The Policy Basis of Measured Partisan Animosity in the United States” ( by Lilla V. Orr and Gregory A. Huber is summarized by the authors below.

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Mass politics in the United States is increasingly characterized as being driven by overt hostility between Democrats and Republicans. So called partisan “teamism” is thought to extend beyond conflict over policies to include personal animosity toward members of the opposing party on the basis of their partisanship. Understanding and addressing the consequences of partisan animosity requires knowledge of its foundations. To what extent is animosity between partisan groups motivated by dislike for partisan out groups per se, other social group conflicts, or policy disagreement? In many circumstances, including most experimental research to date, these patterns are observationally equivalent.  

Scholars, journalists, and political leaders have argued that partisanship has become a kind of tribalism, in which members of each party blindly loath fellow citizens on the basis of their identity as members of the opposite party.1 In this view, Democrats and Republicans loath members of the other party precisely because of their membership in that out group. Others have argued, however, that this animosity does not arise solely on the basis of partisan identity, but is instead driven by hostility towards other social groups stereotypically associated with the parties. For example, Democrats may hold animus against Republicans because they assume Republicans to be evangelical Christians, while Republicans view Democrats as a group largely comprised of people of color.2  

However, these perspectives potentially ignore the fact that political parties in the United States are most fundamentally associated with policy platforms. Told nothing but a candidate for office’s partisanship, most people can readily guess that candidate’s likely positions on a host of contentious issues, from abortion policy to taxes. This fact suggests an alternative theoretical mechanism for why partisans sometimes express animosity toward members of their opposing party, one in which animosity is not about partisanship or group membership, but is instead driven by conflict about salient issues. To continue the example above, Democrats may express toward Republicans because they assume Republicans oppose abortion rights while Republicans object to Democrats as a group working to expand affirmative action. Such an account is particularly intriguing because despite clear elite polarization on key issues, the mass parties are much more heterogeneous, with substantial portions of Democrats holding moderate or conservative positions and Republicans having moderate or liberal positions. 

We designed a series of experiments that allow us to estimate the importance of policy views as a driver of partisan animosity. Using the same basic outcome measure as prior research, each survey respondent was asked to read a short vignette describing an individual. In line with prior research, we randomized the partisanship of that individual. Departing from prior work, however, we also randomized whether or not partisanship was presented alongside other information that respondents might assume on the basis of party. We estimated effects of shared partisanship when additional information was or was not present, and benchmarked these effects against the effects of a shared policy preference. 

When no other politically relevant information was provided, we found that partisans evaluated vignettes more positively when the vignettes shared a party identification than when they described an opposing partisanship. But this effect of shared party is smaller than the effect of a shared policy position when each is presented in isolation. Partisanship effects in our experiments were about 71% as large as shared policy preference effects.

Further, when an independently randomized party and policy position were presented together, survey respondents appeared to evaluate the vignettes primarily on the basis of their policy position. When any policy position was listed in the vignette partisanship effects decreased substantially, dropping by about 52%. Policy effects remained large even when partisanship was also known, decreasing by only about 10%. Overall, people responded more positively to opposing partisans who shared a policy position than members of their own party who held a policy position the respondent opposed.

These basic trends held across a variety of issue positions related to immigration, gun control, welfare, abortion, and rights for same sex couples. Trends also held within both major parties. Even the strongest partisans, who care greatly about shared partisanship and shared policy positions when presented in isolation, evaluated vignettes primarily on the basis of policy positions when both were known. 

In a second experiment, we explored what traits survey respondents believe to be most important for positive social interactions. We asked respondents to imagine that they were assigning seats for a friend’s wedding reception, and that they could learn a bit about each guest. Which three pieces of information would they like to learn about the guests in order to ensure that everyone has a good time? Respondents most frequently asked to learn about how the guests know the couple, a personality trait, and a hobby. Gender and sexuality, partisanship, and religion were requested less often, each by about 20% of respondents. For a random subset of respondents, we also gave them the opportunity to learn about guests’ policy preferences. Requests to learn partisanship dropped substantially in this condition. Although a small proportion of respondents asked to learn about both, more people appear to perceive potential conflict along the dimension of policy rather than partisanship.

Together, these results suggest that common measures of partisan animosity may capture programmatic conflict more so than social identity-based partisan hostility. As we work to prevent and mitigate the worst repercussions of partisan animosity, it is essential to incorporate an understanding of this hostility as something more than pure partisan animus or an outgrowth of social group conflict. Instead, partisan animosity seems fundamentally driven by political conflict.  

1 Packer, George. October 12, 2018; Mason, Lilliana. ““I disrespectfully agree”: The differential effects of partisan sorting on social and issue polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59.1 (2015): 128-145.

2 Ahler, Douglas J., and Gaurav Sood. “The parties in our heads: Misperceptions about party composition and their consequences.” The Journal of Politics 80.3 (2018): 964-98

About the Authors: Lilla V. Orr is Graduate Student, Department of Political Science, at Yale University and Gregory A. Huber is Forst Family Professor of Political Science at Yale University. Their research “The Policy Basis of Measured Partisan Animosity in the United States” ( is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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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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