Quick question: What is more divisive, politics or race?

Posted at 12:03 PM, Oct 30, 2014

Can it be that political parties are a more divisive force in American life than race?

The question seems almost bizarre and the answer seems an obvious “no.”  But some new research indicates otherwise.

A paper called “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization” by political scientists Shanto Iyengar of Stanford and Sean Westwood of Princeton is generating a stir by arguing “that the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”

This isn’t only about politics and how people vote. “We demonstrate that partisan cues now also influence decisions outside of politics and that partisanship is a political and social divide,” the authors write.  

What kind of decisions? Marriage – partisans don’t want their children marrying across party lines. Dating – data from online dating sites show politics is a “powerful predictor” of romantic decisions. Neighborhoods – they are becoming politically homogeneous.  Social media – politics is a key way people sort themselves into groups.

Survey research and common sense observation have long established that partisans in America have become more adamant about their beliefs and more hostile towards the other camp. Iyengar and Westwood expanded our understanding of that with psychological experiments to look at how party identity steers non-political decisions.

One experiment examined how 1,000 people viewed resumes from high school seniors applying for scholarships. The resumes contained racial and partisan information.  It turned out that partisanship had far more impact than race. Both Democrats and Republicans picked applicants from their team 80 percent of the time, even when they were less qualified.

A key to all this is permission. It is socially acceptable to be partisan, even rabid. It is not socially acceptable to be racist or sexist or prejudiced in other ways. There are no norms or courtesies constraining political bile. “If anything, the rhetoric and actions of political leaders demonstrate that hostility directed at the opposition is acceptable, even appropriate,” the study says.

Politicians model the worst kind of partisan behavior in their rhetoric, advertising and governing.  We imitate it.

This has been called “partyism,” a variant strain of racism or sexism.

I don’t believe that it is very meaningful to compare partyism and racism. It’s apples and oranges. Partisanship does divide society deeply, but in ways very different than race. The history is different. A person can choose a party, but not a race.

What is striking in this study is that it shows how unshackled and sprawling partisan aggression has become. It seems political combat has become the socially acceptable way of venting our anger and angst.

Political parties in America, despised by the founders, have been far weaker than in Europe, politically and socially. But party affiliation has become a much more powerful source of social identity here in recent years.

Perhaps that is because other traditional social bonds have weakened – religion, membership groups, neighborhoods and even family.

Unfortunately, the dominant expression of our partisan identities seems to be trashing the other side.

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