Americans clearly do not agree about the best solutions to the country’s biggest problems. But while those disagreements are fierce, they are not as strong as their feelings of distrust, dislike and disdain for people who belong to the opposing political party. In fact, Democrats and Republicans have developed such harsh antipathy for their political opposites that it exceeds the level of camaraderie they feel for those who vote the same way. It is these personal antipathies more than differing political beliefs that are driving Americans’ divisions.
These are the findings from a new report by a group of social scientists from 11 universities and six different disciplines—political science, psychology, sociology, economics, management and computational social science—who did a review of the literature from each of their areas of expertise to see what the social sciences had to say about America’s current political divisions. The study, which was published on Oct. 29 in Science, was co-led by Northwestern University professor of social psychology Eli Finkel, whose area of expertise is actually marriage and interpersonal relationships.
For the first time, say the researchers, people’s animosity toward their political opponents exceeds their attachment to those who lean the same way. Finkel and his colleagues point to the American National Election Survey, which has been tallying the attitudes of voters since the ’70s and has found that Americans’ level of warmth for their own party has remained level; they have not become more loyal to or fonder of those who share their ideology. But especially since 2012, their feelings for the other party have become so cold that it is a more potent force than their party fidelity. A 2020 NBER study of nine Western democracies found the U.S. had the highest rate of polarization of any of them between the people in opposing political parties.
Adherents to one party increasingly see those who vote the other way as not just different but less moral, less trustworthy and unrecognizable to them. It’s the combination of the three that makes the divisions so sharp. “It’s not just they are in a different group,” says Finkel. “They’re alien from me, they’re highly unlikeable and they’re doing immoral things. That creates the sectarian disaster.”
Of course, many of these impressions are not based in fact. In 2015, researchers asked 1,000 respondents on YouGov how many Republicans made more than $250,000 a year. The average guess was 38%. (It was 2%.) The survey takers also estimated that almost a third of Democrats were LGBT. (About 6% are.) The impressions were more inaccurate when respondents were guessing about the party they didn’t belong to than when they were guessing about the one they did.
According to the Science study, these personal antipathies have been driven by three trends. One is the rise of partisan media and social media, which enables people to live in information and opinion bubbles, and makes those with opposing views seem more abnormal. Another is the tendency of political operatives and elites to identify and emphasize cudgel issues, such as abortion or LGBTQ rights, to make the adherents of other parties seem less humane and on the side of evil, in order to generate votes and for fundraising. “It’s strategically valuable for political elites to find a way to drum up hatred for the opposition,” says Finkel.
The final trend is the rise of the “mega-identity” in which other personality traits and beliefs are brought in line with a political identity. “For the first time in American history, immigrants, African Americans and other marginalized communities, LGBT all align with one political orientation,” says Finkel. “This is one of the major elements of othering. This highly multicultural party is a little difficult for some people who for several generations have lived in the same rural community, and are European-American. They find them increasingly odd and different. At the same time people in the multicultural party feel like, Well, you guys are not what America is now. You also are weird and incomprehensible and an anachronism.” This “mega-identity” works like a religion, in which adherents to a set of beliefs have strict rules for inclusion and regard those who only abide by some of the rules as apostates. The researchers call this phenomenon “political sectarianism.”
The paper offers several avenues of exploration for ways of dissolving these divisions. Reinstating the FCC’s “fairness doctrine,” which required broadcasters to be unbiased but was overturned in 1987, seems unlikely, but several studies have found that nudging people to think about accuracy before sharing a post on social media reduced the spread of inflammatory information. Campaign finance reform, the reduction of gerrymandering and encouraging politicians to treat their opponents with warmth might militate against candidates always using extreme positions to get elected. The 2015 YouGov experiment and others have shown that when people are informed of the inaccuracy of their stereotypes, their opinions soften.
None of it is simple. Finkel, who’s better known as the author of The All-or-Nothing Marriage than as a political analyst, says he couldn’t help noticing how similar conditions in the U.S. were to those of divorcing couples. “If you were to set yourself the diabolical task of how to build the most toxic marriage possible, you would maximize contempt, you would make sure you interpreted your partner’s actions in the most negative way, you would surround yourself with people who hate your spouse,” he says. “If you superimpose those characteristics on the body politic, we’ve built the most toxic marriage possible.” But considering that the divisions and mistrust and deep personal antipathy leave the U.S. open to manipulation by outsiders and prevent a unified approach to common problems like climate change and the pandemic, it seems like it might be worth the cost of therapy.