A new study suggests Americans tend to view their political party as a more accurate picture of who they are—even more than their race, gender, ethnicity, or religion.
But why does political “partyism” trump other social identifiers?
One reason is that you choose who you’ll support politically—but race and ethnicity are assigned at birth.
“Because partisan affiliation is voluntary, it is a much more informative measure of attitudes and belief structures than, for example, knowing what skin color someone has,” according to the study in the European Journal of Political Research.
Further, unlike race, religion, and gender, where social norms dictate behavior—there are few, if any, constraints on the expression of hostility toward people who adhere to opposing political ideologies.
For example, certain words are out-of-bounds when directed toward people of specific races or genders. But these boundaries don’t really apply in a partisan environment and boorish behavior may actually be encouraged by party leaders.
“There are no corresponding pressures to moderate disapproval of political opponents. In fact, the rhetoric and behavior of party leaders suggests to voters that it is perfectly acceptable to treat opponents with disdain. In this sense, individuals have greater freedom to discriminate against out-party supporters.”
Americans aren’t the only ones
To measure levels of partisanship, researchers used a behavioral game involving donating money to individuals based on profiles that included, among other information, their political affiliation. The study involved more than 4,000 participants from Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The game’s results reveal that players from all four countries exhibited strong bonds with politically like-minded players while expressing “significant dislike for members of the political opposition,” the paper states.
The researchers also found this partisan behavior appeared both in divided societies, like Belgium and Spain, where rifts along social lines run deep, and in integrated societies, like the UK and the US, where those social divides are less prevalent.
“…partisans are motivated more by out-group animosity than in-group favoritism.”
Americans’ animosity toward players from opposing political viewpoints was stronger than favoritism shown toward politically like-minded players. In other words, they disliked their enemies even more than they liked their friends.
American players provided an 8 percent bonus to players with the same partisan affiliation. However, Republican participants were penalized 10 percent by Democrats and Democratic participants were penalized 16 percent by Republicans.
“This finding suggests that partisans are motivated more by out-group animosity than in-group favoritism,” says Shanto Iyengar, a professor of communication and political science at Stanford University.
The widespread behavior suggests that Americans are not alone in having their partisan beliefs occupy a major identity role.
Despite the similarities with other countries, Americans were distinct in their outward display of partisan identities. Americans affix bumper stickers to their cars and place yard signs outside their homes advertising their political preferences, a behavior uncommon in other societies where citizens tend to keep those views to themselves.
“American campaigns feature greater involvement on the part of ordinary citizens,” Iyengar says. “Campaigns also last much longer than in Europe, giving people more opportunities to send signals concerning their political affiliation.”
Other coauthors are from Dartmouth College, the University of Antwerp, the University of the Basque Country, the University of Deusto, and Berlin Social Science Center.
Source: Stanford University