Sources of Change: Mass Political Behavior and Party Incentives

From More than Red and Blue: Political Parties and American Democracy
Trump hats hanging on a clothesline.


Party reform is constrained to some degree by the behavior and attitudes of voters. Many political observers assume that voters behave consistently in their own economic self-interest. Most research on human behavior, however, undermines this assumption. This chapter lays out a description of the current political motivations driving voters, the biases they bring with them into the voting booth, and how the two parties are playing to different audiences using different tactics. It ends by offering some suggestions for change based in mass psychology and political identity.

Party leaders often respond to pressures from their most-ardent supporters, especially the most wealthy and reactionary.1Blum, Rachel M. 2020. How the Tea Party Captured the GOP: Insurgent Factions in American Politics. University of Chicago Press.2Dalton, Russell J. 2013. Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies. CQ Press.3Hacker, Jacob S. and Paul Pierson. 2020. Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality. New York: Liveright.4Parker, Christopher S., and Matt A. Barreto. 2013. Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. Princeton University Press.5Though there is also abundant evidence that political elites have substantial power to influence the opinions of their supporters (Lenz 2012; Barber and Pope 2019) and that they are most responsive to the interests of the wealthy (Bartels 2016; Gilens 2012). But party supporters are not always looking out for the best interests of American democracy, the best interests of the American people, or even the material well-being of their own fellow partisans.6Metzl, Jonathan. 2018. Dying of Whiteness. Basic Books. Partisan voters are not motivated by simple economic self-interest or rational consideration of party platforms. Most partisans are driven by a desire for group status and victory over the enemy — even when that enemy is a fellow American.7Achen, Christopher H., and Larry M. Bartels. 2016. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.8Mason, Lilliana. 2018a. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. University of Chicago Press. Any effort to reform the parties will need to understand that voters are not always thinking of the greater good — they are often thinking mainly of victory.

The current social divide between the parties has upended the traditional understanding of American political behavior and encouraged identity-based grievance politics to proliferate.9Achen, Christopher H., and Larry M. Bartels. 2016. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.10Mason, Lilliana. 2018a. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. University of Chicago Press. It has also allowed “plutocratic priorities” to drive the majority of the Republican Party platform.11Hacker, Jacob S., and Paul Pierson. 2015. “Confronting Asymmetric Polarization.” In Solutions to Political Polarization in America, ed. Nathaniel Persily, 59-70. Cambridge University Press.12Hacker, Jacob S. and Paul Pierson. 2020. Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality. New York: Liveright. A more reasonable political future will rely on a realistic evaluation of partisan motivations, along with a forceful commitment to democracy from partisans across the spectrum of policy beliefs.

Importantly, partisan motives are not symmetrical across the two parties. The psychological motivations toward victory are universally applicable across all humans but are not currently being used to the same degree by Democratic and Republican leaders, as I describe below.

This chapter examines the current state of partisan sentiment among voters, explains the determinants and outcomes of voter behavior, and offers theoretically plausible paths toward deescalating an increasingly energized (and often extreme) electorate.

Identity-Based Polarization

Identity-Based Polarization

The current priority of American partisans is partisan victory rather than government success.13Hetherington, Marc. 2015. “‘Why Polarized Trust Matters.’” The Forum 13 (3): 445-58. When group identities become the central drivers of political decision-making, group status can influence political decisions to an outsized degree.14Achen, Christopher H., and Larry M. Bartels. 2016. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. In this case, partisans prefer group victory (in elections or legislation) over the greater good of the nation or even the quality of life of their fellow partisans. The psychological motivations toward victory are well-documented in social psychology and tend to be involved whenever identities are made salient.15Billig, Michael, and Henri Tajfel. 1973. “Social Categorization and Similarity in Intergroup Behaviour.”European Journal of Social Psychology 3 (1): 27-52.16Tajfel, Henri, M. G. Billig, R. P. Bundy, and Claude Flament. 1971. “Social Categorization and Intergroup Behaviour.”European Journal of Social Psychology 1 (2): 149-78.17Tajfel, Henri. 1981. Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in Social Psychology. CUP Archive.

Identity-based, (or “affective”) polarization has been increasing in the United States over the last few decades. While feelings toward people’s own party have remained relatively steady, the warmth of feelings toward the out-party has dropped consistently.18Abramowitz, Alan I., and Steven Webster. 2016. “The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of U.S. Elections in the 21st Century.” Electoral Studies 41 (March): 12-22. Part of the explanation can be found in the changing relationship between multiple social identities in American politics. As Hajnal explains in Chapter 3 of this report, the Democratic and Republican parties have grown more consistently divided along the lines of powerful social identities such as race, religion, ideological identity, and rural consciousness.19Cramer, Katherine J. 2016. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. University of Chicago Press.20Mason, Lilliana. 2018a. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. University of Chicago Press. This “social sorting” means that election outcomes are linked to the status of other identities, like race and religion, not just the status of the parties. The stakes of such elections feel more dire to partisans. The social divide also means that partisans see less of their opponents in their everyday life. This lack of social contact with partisan opponents allows the other side to seem more extreme and provides less common ground for good-faith compromise.21Mason, Lilliana. 2018b. “Losing Common Ground: Social Sorting and Polarization.” The Forum 16 (1): 47-66.22Ryan, Timothy J. 2017. “No Compromise: Political Consequences of Moralized Attitudes.”American Journal of Political Science 61 (2): 409-23. In this scenario, partisanship can become a driver of political action, intolerance, ethnic resentment, and even violence.23Kalmoe, Nathan, and Lilliana Mason. 2022. Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, & the Consequences for Democracy. University of Chicago Press.24Mason, Lilliana. 2015. “‘I Disrespectfully Agree’: The Differential Effects of Partisan Sorting on Social and Issue Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59 (1): 128-45.

Any effort to reform the parties will need to understand that voters are not always thinking of the greater good — they are often thinking mainly of victory.

The racial-partisan divide in particular has allowed American partisans to structure their partisan conflicts along pre-established lines of highly-charged conflict between white and Black Americans.25Hajnal, Zoltan L., and Jeremy D. Horowitz. 2014. “Racial Winners and Losers in American Party Politics.”Perspectives on Politics 12 (01): 100-118.26Hetherington, Marc J., Meri T. Long, and Thomas J. Rudolph. 2016. “Revisiting the Myth: New Evidence of a Polarized Electorate.” Public Opinion Quarterly 80 (S1): 321-50.27Outten, H. Robert, Michael T. Schmitt, Daniel A. Miller, and Amber L. Garcia. 2012. “Feeling Threatened About the Future: Whites’ Emotional Reactions to Anticipated Ethnic Demographic Changes.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38 (1): 14-25.28Parker, Christopher S., and Matt A. Barreto. 2013. Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. Princeton University Press.29Parker, Christopher S. and Christopher C. Towler. 2019. “Race and Authoritarianism in American Politics.”Annual Review of Political Science 22 (1): 503-19.30Schickler, Eric. 2016. Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932-1965. Princeton University Press.31Tesler, Michael, and David O. Sears. 2010. Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. University of Chicago Press.32Valentino, Nicholas A., and David O. Sears. 2005. “Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South.” American Journal of Political Science 49 (3): 672-88.33Westwood, Sean J., and Erik Peterson. 2020. “The Inseparability of Race and Partisanship in the United States.”Political Behavior, October. doi: 10.1007/s11109-020-09648-9. The process of social sorting allowed the Republican Party to represent the interests of “traditional” white, Christian America while the Democratic Party was increasingly representing those who were still struggling to overturn centuries of social inequality. This type of divide is not easily corrected — Democrats and Republicans have opposing visions of who should hold power in American society and how much progress has already been made.34Horowitz, Julia Menasce, Anna Brown, and Kiana Cox. 2019. “Views on Race in America 2019.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project [blog]. April 9, 2019., Brian F., Matthew Macwilliams, and Tatishe Nteta. 2018. “Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism.” Political Science Quarterly 133 (1): 9-34.

Party Asymmetry

Party Asymmetry

Although all people are similarly influenced by the need for group victory, this impulse is particularly important for Republican politicians to harness. The Republican Party position on many important polices (abortion, gun control, corporate taxes, healthcare, industry regulation, Medicaid, infrastructure investments, etc.) run contrary to the majority of public preferences.36Hacker, Jacob S. and Paul Pierson. 2020. Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality. New York: Liveright.37Leonhardt, David. 2022. “‘A Crisis Coming’: The Twin Threats to American Democracy.” The New York Times, September 17., Benjamin I., Jason Seawright, and Matthew J. Lacombe. 2018. Billionaires and Stealth Politics. University of Chicago Press. Partly because of the success of conservative and corporate lobbyists39Hertel-Fernandez, Alex. 2019. State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation. New York: Oxford University Press.40Skocpol, Theda, and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez. 2016. “The Koch Network and Republican Party Extremism.” Perspectives on Politics 14 (3): 681-99., partly due to the Trump administration’s focus on unpopular policy41Sides, John, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck. 2022. The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy. Princeton University Press., partly due to Republican elected officials’ misperceptions of the desires of their constituents42Broockman, David E., and Christopher Skovron. 2018. “Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion among Political Elites.” American Political Science Review 112 (3): 542-63., and partly because of the over-representation of rural Republican voters43Rodden, Jonathan A. 2019. Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide. Basic Books., Republican politics often prioritize policies that do not reflect the majority opinions of Americans.

It is therefore in the interest of the GOP to take advantage of identity-centric rhetoric — which can motivate voters without offering them economic or practical benefits. As Hacker and Pierson44Hacker, Jacob S. and Paul Pierson. 2020. Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality. New York: Liveright. describe, “to deliver to the plutocrats yet still win elections, Republicans reached ever deeper into parts of the nation and segments of the electorate where conservative economic policies failed to stir voters’ passions but divisive appeals to identity did.” By leaning on threats to group status and grievance narratives, the Republican Party is uniquely positioned to benefit from partisan animosity and conflict. A straight governance debate does not benefit their candidates.

One caveat, however, is that a substantial portion of Americans are embarrassed to admit that they even hold partisan identities and have turned away from politics due to the nastiness and animosity on display in public political conflicts.45Klar, Samara, and Yanna Krupnikov. 2016. Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction. New York: Cambridge University Press. These Americans, though they are generally committed to one party, tend to be less involved in politics and also hold policy preferences that differ from those of the more active partisans.46Krupnikov, Yanna, and John Barry Ryan. 2022. The Other Divide. 1st edition. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. A less divisive political atmosphere might allow them back into the fold. The next two sections explore possible avenues toward a less contentious politics.

Realignment Around Democracy

Realignment Around Democracy

In Chapter 3 of this report, Zoltan Hajnal lays out a clear story of the realignment of the social groups that make up the two parties. In particular, Hajnal identifies the realignment of racial identities and attitudes along partisan lines as a response to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Effectively, the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 broke the Democratic Party — repelling its previously loyal bloc of White Southern Democrats. This led to decades of gradual partisan shifting — an era of weak and changing party loyalty. During this period, partisans were less committed to their parties, and somewhat more persuadable by party (and candidate) performance.47Fiorina, Morris P. 1981. Retrospective Voting in American National Elections. New Haven: Yale University Press.

In today’s era of extremely powerful party loyalty, something like a new realignment focused on the importance of democracy may offer one avenue toward the marginalization of anti-democracy forces.

Partisanship is typically a very durable identity48Huddy, Leonie, Lilliana Mason, and Lene Aarøe. 2015. “Expressive Partisanship: Campaign Involvement, Political Emotion, and Partisan Identity.” American Political Science Review 109 (01): 1-17., so realignments tend to be rare. They can also be opportunistic. When one party does not offer sufficient benefits49These benefits are not only material, nor is the perception of benefits entirely rational. A party can satisfy its base while neglecting their material well-being if they focus on and fight for that group’s relative social status (Metzl 2018). to a group of its core constituents, the opposing party may (as the Republican Party did to white Southern Democrats after the 1960s) reach out to attract those wavering voters.

Today, the Republican Party is united at the elite level in support of former President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” agenda. Trump’s most fervent supporters are driven by animosity toward marginalized groups in the U.S.50Mason, Lilliana, Julie Wronski, and John V. Kane. 2021. “Activating Animus: The Uniquely Social Roots of Trump Support.”American Political Science Review 115 (4): 1508-16., conspiratorial thinking, and anti-democratic inclinations51Lange, Jason. 2022. “Most Americans See Trump’s MAGA as Threat to Democracy: Reuters/Ipsos Poll.” Reuters, September 8. democracy-reutersipsos-2022-09-07.52Parker, Christopher S., and Rachel Blum. 2021. “Analysis | Why the GOP Can’t Quit Trump.” Washington Post, March 20. (among other things). New research from the University of California, Davis Violence Prevention Research Program has identified “MAGA Republicans” as a distinct group of Republicans (defined as Republicans who voted for Trump in 2020 and agreed that the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump). In comparison with other Republicans who do not hold these views but nevertheless identify as Republicans, the MAGA Republicans are significantly more likely to agree that “having a strong leader is more important than having a democracy” (31% vs. 17%), and that “armed citizens should patrol polling places at election time” (19% vs. 5%). About a third of MAGA Republicans agreed that there will be a civil war in the US in the next few years, while only 7 percent of strongly-identified Republicans and 10 percent of weakly-identified non-MAGA Republicans believed the same. MAGA Republicans were also significantly and substantially more likely to agree that whites were being discriminated against (72%) and replaced (51%), to agree with the main tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theories (27-38% depending on the myth), and to believe that violence is justified in pursuing political goals — specifically goals supporting Donald Trump — with the goal of preserving “an American way of life based on Western European traditions.”53Wintemute, Garen, Sonia Robinson, and Elizabeth A. Tomsich. 2022. “MAGA Republicans’ Views of American Democracy and Society and Support for Political Violence: Findings from a Nationwide Population-Representative Survey.” SocArXiv. doi: 10.31235/

These “MAGA Republicans” are empirically different from “traditional” Republicans and may present an opportunity for a realignment around pro- versus anti-democracy values. They represent only one third of Republicans and 15 percent of the American population.54Wintemute, Garen, Sonia Robinson, and Elizabeth A. Tomsich. 2022. “MAGA Republicans’ Views of American Democracy and Society and Support for Political Violence: Findings from a Nationwide Population-Representative Survey.” SocArXiv. doi: 10.31235/ However, they control much of the leadership of the Republican Party, and therefore have outsized power in a two-party system.55Drutman, Lee. 2020. Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America. Oxford University Press.

Partisans also believe that their opponents hold much more extreme policy attitudes than they do in reality.

One opportunity for realignment would be for Democrats to reach out to pro-democracy Republicans in order to marginalize this MAGA faction of Americans. This would involve collaboration on democracy-related legislation and messaging. However, it would also entail difficult conversations about the other priorities of the government, and likely lead to voters rejecting these Republicans.

Another challenge is that demographic change is also occurring in the United States, and this process is pushing White Americans increasingly into the Republican Party.56Hajnal, Zoltan L., and Michael U. Rivera. 2014. “Immigration, Latinos, and White Partisan Politics: The New Democratic Defection.” American Journal of Political Science 58 (4): 773-89. Popular right-wing media are using the false narrative of the “Great Replacement Theory” to escalate white status threat.57Yourish, Karen, Weiyi Cai, Larry Buchanan, Aaron Byrd, Barbara Harvey, Blacki Migliozzi, Rumsey Taylor, Josh Williams, and Michael Zandlo. 2022. “Inside the Apocalyptic Worldview of ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight.’” The New York Times,April 30. Any pro-democracy coalition-building will face the challenge of racial and ethnic status threat in demanding attention from voters.

Given that the US is politically divided along racial and religious lines, institutional reform will be difficult. Furthermore, the less- partisan eras of this country’s history did not reflect societal peace or anything like racial justice — they were times when both parties embraced (or, at best, ignored) white supremacy. Going back to such an era would not be easy, or wise. Considering this, it could be instructive to turn to more individual-level psychological theories on reducing intergroup conflict in general.

Reducing Animosity Among Voters

Reducing Animosity Among Voters

While political leaders (especially on the right) appear to be committed to increasing animosity in the public, other forces could potentially slow or counteract these elite cues. It is important to note that these methods are generally useful for increasing tolerance across groups. Increasing tolerance of intolerance is not the intended use of these methods.

Motivated Reasoning

Partisan motivated reasoning can make it difficult to change partisan minds. Partisans seek out information that is beneficial to their party, and ignore or counter- argue information that harms their party.58Leeper, Thomas J., and Rune Slothuus. 2014. “Political Parties, Motivated Reasoning, and Public Opinion Formation.”Political Psychology 35: 129-56.59Taber, Charles S., and Milton Lodge. 2006. “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs.”American Journal of Political Science 50 (3): 755-69. Unfortunately, these effects are most common among those who are the most informed about politics and numerically literate.60Kahan, Dan M., Ellen Peters, Maggie Wittlin, Paul Slovic, Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, Donald Braman, and Gregory Mandel. 2012. “The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks.” Nature Climate Change 2 (10): 732-35.61Lewandowsky, Stephan, and Klaus Oberauer. 2016. “Motivated Rejection of Science.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 25 (4): 217-22. Even evaluations of objective economic conditions can be biased by partisan reasoning.62Enns, Peter K., and Gregory E. McAvoy. 2012. “The Role of Partisanship in Aggregate Opinion.” Political Behavior 34 (4): 627-51.63Rogers, Jonathan. 2016. “Tea Party Support and Perceptions of Local Economic Conditions.”Electoral Studies 42 (June): 91-98.

However, it is possible to counteract these motivations. By prompting partisans to think about civic duty or accuracy over partisanship, some partisans can overcome some of these biases.64Bolsen, Toby, James N. Druckman, and Fay Lomax Cook. 2014. “The Influence of Partisan Motivated Reasoning on Public Opinion.” Political Behavior 36 (2): 235-62.65Bullock, John G. 2009. “Partisan Bias and the Bayesian Ideal in the Study of Public Opinion.”The Journal of Politics 71 (3): 1109-24.66Groenendyk, Eric. 2013. Competing Motives in the Partisan Mind: How Loyalty and Responsiveness Shape Party Identification and Democracy. 1st edition. Oxford University Press. Removing a discussion from the political sphere and encouraging open-mindedness can also reduce motivated reasoning.67Groenendyk, Eric, and Yanna Krupnikov. 2021. “What Motivates Reasoning? A Theory of Goal-Dependent Political Evaluation.” American Journal of Political Science 65 (1): 180-96.

False Polarization

Americans tend to be wrong about the extremity of the other party. People overestimate the number of partisans who are members of stereotypically-partisan groups.68Ahler, Douglas J., and Gaurav Sood. 2018. “The Parties in Our Heads: Misperceptions about Party Composition and Their Consequences.” The Journal of Politics 80 (3): 964-81. When people are told the correct numbers, however, they see members of the other party as less extreme and feel less socially distant from them. Partisans also believe their opponents hold much more extreme policy attitudes than they do in reality. That belief increases the policy extremity of those who believe it.69Ahler, Douglas J. 2014. “Self-Fulfilling Misperceptions of Public Polarization.” The Journal of Politics 76 (3): 607-20.70Levendusky, Matthew S., and Neil Malhotra. 2015. “(Mis)Perceptions of Partisan Polarization in the American Public.”Public Opinion Quarterly, October, nfv045. Partisans also overestimate the violence of their opposing party. When these misperceptions are corrected, they approve less of political violence.71Mernyk, Joseph S., Sophia L. Pink, James N. Druckman, and Robb Willer. 2022. “Correcting Inaccurate Metaperceptions Reduces Americans’ Support for Partisan Violence.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119 (16): e2116851119.

Extreme and incorrect portraits of partisan opponents tend to make partisan conflict worse. Changing voters’ assumptions about their opposing party (while difficult) could therefore reduce conflict. This could be aimed at partisan media, social media, and even interpersonal communications. Elected leaders could reinforce messages of similarity rather than exaggerating difference.

Superordinate Identity

A classic approach to reducing intergroup conflict is to emphasize a superordinate group identity.72Sherif, Muzafer, and Carolyn W. Sherif. 1953. Groups in Harmony and Tension; an Integration of Studies of Intergroup Relations. Vol. xiii. Oxford: Harper & Brothers. Increasing attention to a shared superordinate identity can increase communication across groups73Greenaway, Katharine H., Ruth G. Wright, Joanne Willingham, Katherine J. Reynolds, and S. Alexander Haslam. 2014. “Shared Identity Is Key to Effective Communication.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, November, 0146167214559709. doi: 10.1177/0146167214559709., and has been shown to reduce affective polarization in the US between Democrats and Republicans.74Levendusky, Matthew S. 2017. “Americans, Not Partisans: Can Priming American National Identity Reduce Affective Polarization?” The Journal of Politics 80 (1): 59-70.

However, a threat to a superordinate identity cannot always improve intergroup relations — at times it can worsen conflict. In particular, when there is little trust between groups, and contempt or fear between them, group members can respond to a common threat by scapegoating and blaming the outgroup rather than cooperating.75Brewer, Marilynn B. 1999. “The Psychology of Prejudice: Ingroup Love and Outgroup Hate?” Journal of Social Issues 55 (3): 429-44. For example, any national rallying effect from the COVID pandemic was blunted by partisanship in the US, where interparty tensions were already high and the pandemic response was politicized.76Gadarian, Shana Kushner, Sara Wallace Goodman, and Thomas B. Pepinsky. 2022. Pandemic Politics: The Deadly Toll of Partisanship in the Age of COVID. Princeton: Princeton University Press.77Shino, Enrijeta, and Michael Binder. 2020. “Defying the Rally During COVID-19 Pandemic: A Regression Discontinuity Approach.” Social Science Quarterly 101 (5): 1979-94.


Social identities can reduce the biasing effects of partisanship if they are “cross-cutting” or act as “cross-pressures”.78Berelson, Bernard R., Paul F. Lazarsfeld, William N. McPhee. 1962. Voting. University of Chicago Press.79Campbell, Angus, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. Abridged edition. University of Chicago Press.80Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet. 1944. The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign. Duell, Sloan & Pearce.81Lipset, Professor Seymour Martin. 1981. Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Expanded. The Johns Hopkins University Press. This happens when people from opposing parties are also members of the same social group. When partisans are exposed to cross-cutting social networks, they tend to grow more politically tolerant82Mutz, Diana C., and Jeffery J. Mondak. 2006. “The Workplace as a Context for Cross-Cutting Political Discourse.”Journal of Politics 68 (1): 140-55.83Mutz, Diana C. 2002. “Cross-Cutting Social Networks: Testing Democratic Theory in Practice.” American Political Science Review 96 (01): 111-26, engage in less partisan-motivated reasoning84Klar, Samara. 2014. “Partisanship in a Social Setting.” American Journal of Political Science 58 (3): 687-704., engage in higher quality political thinking85Erisen, Elif, and Cengiz Erisen. 2012. “The Effect of Social Networks on the Quality of Political Thinking.”Political Psychology 33 (6): 839-65., consume less partisan media (Scacco and Peacock 2013), and think of themselves in more non-partisan terms86Lupton, Robert N., Shane P. Singh, and Judd R. Thornton. 2015. “The Moderating Impact of Social Networks on the Relationships Among Core Values, Partisanship, and Candidate Evaluations.” Political Psychology 36 (4): 399–414. doi:10.1111/pops.12102.. They also, unfortunately, tend to participate less in politics.87Brader, Ted, Joshua A. Tucker, and Andrew Therriault. 2014. “Cross Pressure Scores: An Individual-Level Measure of Cumulative Partisan Pressures Arising from Social Group Memberships.” Political Behavior 36 (1): 23–51. doi: 10.1007/s11109-013-9222-8.88Nir, Lilach. 2005. “Ambivalent Social Networks and Their Consequences for Participation.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 17 (4): 422–42. doi: 10.1093/ijpor/edh069.89Nir, Lilach. 2011. “Disagreement and Opposition in Social Networks: Does Disagreement Discourage Turnout?” Political Studies 59 (3): 674–92. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2010.00873.x.

Contact Theory

Social contact across opposing groups can reduce prejudice between them.90Allport, Gordon Willard. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. In fact, contact can also reduce prejudice “vicariously,” simply by exposure via friends-of-friends or even media exposure.91Pettigrew, Thomas F., Linda R. Tropp, Ulrich Wagner, and Oliver Christ. 2011. “Recent Advances in Intergroup Contact Theory.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 35 (3): 271-80. But caution should be used, as contact can backfire in the case of intractable conflicts. Cross-cutting political discussions can also reduce partisan animosity.92Amsalem, Eran, Eric Merkley, and Peter John Loewen. 2021. “Does Talking to the Other Side Reduce Inter-Party Hostility? Evidence from Three Studies.” Political Communication 0 (0): 1-18. Unfortunately, contact between Democrats and Republicans in the US has become increasingly rare, as partisans have grown geographically segregated.93Brown, Jacob R., and Ryan D. Enos. 2021. “The Measurement of Partisan Sorting for 180 Million Voters.”Nature Human Behaviour, March, 1-11.94Cramer, Katherine J. 2016. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. University of Chicago Press.95Jacobs, Nicholas F., and B. Kal Munis. 2018. “Place-Based Imagery and Voter Evaluations: Experimental Evidence on the Politics of Place.” Political Research Quarterly 72 (2): 263-277.

Elite Rhetoric

Partisans in the public respond to elite polarization with partisan animosity96Banda, Kevin K., and John Cluverius. 2018. “Elite Polarization, Party Extremity, and Affective Polarization.”Electoral Studies 56 (December): 90-101. and stronger reliance on partisan cues to form opinions about policy.97Lenz, Gabriel S. 2012. Follow the Leader?: How Voters Respond to Politicians’ Policies and Performance. Chicago Studies in American Politics. University of Chicago Press.98Druckman, James N., Erik Peterson, and Rune Slothuus. 2013. “How Elite Partisan Polarization Affects Public Opinion Formation.” American Political Science Review 107 (01): 57-79. Elite incivility can generate anger in the mass public99Gervais, Bryan T. 2016. “More than Mimicry? The Role of Anger in Uncivil Reactions to Elite Political Incivility.”International Journal of Public Opinion Research, April, edw010. and a more combative form of partisanship.100Gervais, Bryan T. 2019. “Rousing the Partisan Combatant: Elite Incivility, Anger, and Antideliberative Attitudes.”Political Psychology 40 (3): 637-55.. Political leaders even have the power to reduce approval of political violence among partisans101Kalmoe, Nathan, and Lilliana Mason. 2022. Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Violent Hostility, Its Causes, & the Consequences for Democracy. University of Chicago Press. By observing leaders, partisans learn which norms and values are most important to the party. The public enforcement (or lack thereof) of those norms can shape the behavior of loyal partisans.

Social Norms

Social norms are the rules that group members follow and enforce. Generally, norm enforcement happens via social sanctions.102Fehr, Ernst, and Urs Fischbacher. 2004. “Social Norms and Human Cooperation.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8 (4): 185-90. Conformity with group norms attracts peer approval and feelings of pride while deviance from group norms leads to disapproval and feelings of shame.103Suhay, Elizabeth. 2014. “Explaining Group Influence: The Role of Identity and Emotion in Political Conformity and Polarization.” Political Behavior 37 (1): 221-51. If party leaders enforce norms of tolerance and cooperation, animosity can be reduced. However, the opposite is also true — norms of extremism and intolerance will inspire political conflict. Reform can happen when new social norms (“what should be”) work together with party loyalty to gather support for new approaches.104Smith, Laura G. E., Emma F. Thomas, and Craig McGarty. 2015. “‘We Must Be the Change We Want to See in the World’: Integrating Norms and Identities through Social Interaction.” Political Psychology 36 (5): 543-57. Leader rhetoric can shape whether citizens see politics as a realm of conflict or one of cooperation.



Although realignment seems unlikely and individual approaches are hard to scale, the hope is that a creative remedy can be gleaned from these findings. This scholarship can provide some insights into potential opportunities (and difficulties) in pursuing a better pattern of behavior from both leaders and regular citizens. From a structural level, a new partisan coalition between Democrats and pro-democracy Republicans could weaken blind partisan loyalty among at least some segment of the electorate. This approach would likely need to take advantage of an emerging rift within the Republican Party. On an individual level, research on intergroup conflict has identified multiple mechanisms by which group-level animosity can be reduced. If party leaders are not acting responsibly, it may be possible (though unlikely) to encourage voters to require better behavior of them via alternative leaders. Whatever the case, any plans for democratic reforms would do well to consider the deep-seated motivations of partisans in the electorate.

About the Author

Lilliana Mason

Johns Hopkins University

Related Content