POQ Piece: Affect, not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization

Edits were sent for proofing to POQ. Hence, In Press.



The current debate over the extent of polarization among the American mass public focuses on the extent to which policy attitudes have moved. While “maximalists” claim that partisans’ views on policies have become more extreme over time (Abramowitz 2010), “minimalists” (Fiorina and Abrams 2009) respond that the majority of Americans remain centrist, and that what little centrifugal movement has occurred reflects sorting, i.e., the increased association between partisanship and ideology. We argue in favor of an alternative definition of polarization, based on the classic concept of social distance (Bogardus 1947). Using data from a variety of sources, we demonstrate that both Republicans and Democrats increasingly dislike, even loathe their opponents. We also find that partisan affect is only weakly founded in policy attitudes; thus movement in policy attitudes may not explain affective polarization. The more plausible account lies in the nature of political campaigns; exposure to messages attacking the out-group confirms partisans’ biased views of their opponents.