Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Partisanship During a Period of Tribal Politics

Two papers on party affiliation caught my attention recently. They help explain two contradictory and puzzling results in contemporary politics—the increasing importance of partisanship in explaining political behavior, especially voting, on the one hand, and the increasing percentage of people who identify as independents, meaning no party affiliation, on the other hand.

The first paper, by Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov and entitled “Social Desirability Bias in Measures of Partisanship” explains the problem of social desirability bias as it pertains to the measurement of party affiliation in surveys:

In this manuscript we address this possibility of this effect in one of the most fundamental measures in American politics: the measure of partisanship. In particular, we argue that social desirability pressures may lead individuals to misrepresent their partisan affiliations, and instead report that they are independent.  Further, we suggest that this tendency to eschew partisanship is most likely to happen when individuals are reminded of elite partisan disagreement and can be further exacerbated by question-wording in measures of partisanship.

Or, they might not be misstating their party affiliation: They may be fed up with the extremes among party elites in their partisanship during this period of tribal politics. Why is it that millennials are less attracted to political parties? Is it because young people are not likely to have party attachments? Or is it that millennials are more likely to seek the middle ground, comfortable with a “live and let live” political preference that eschews extremes? That’s my take.

The second paper, by Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster entitled “All Politics is National: The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of U.S. House and Senate Elections in the 21st Century,” discusses the effects of increased partisan behavior of strong partisans, weak partisans, and partisan leaners, especially since 2008. They attribute this to negative partisanship, which is explained below:

Negative partisanship develops when the partisan identities of voters are strongly related to
other salient social and political characteristics.  When this happens, supporters of each party
perceive supporters of the opposing party as very different from themselves in terms of their
social characteristics and fundamental values.  As a result, voters tend to hold very negative opinions of the opposing party’s leaders and supporters, prefer not to associate with those who
support the opposing party and are less likely to consider voting for candidates from the
opposing party (Pew Research Center 2014; Bafumi and Shapiro 2009; Greenberg 2004;
Jacobson 2005; Kimball, Summary and Vorst 2015).  These attitudes can be found among all
types of party identifiers including independents who lean toward a party.

Both papers make important contributions to our understanding of party attachments in contemporary national and state politics. There is no doubt in my mind that the tribal nature of contemporary politics is producing both results: Partisanship is less socially desirable to a large percentage of the population, and, at the same time, political activity is increasingly viewed through the lens of partisanship with negative views of one party by the individual becoming more influential in the vote choice.

For many people, it’s difficult to become involved in elections because of the conflict among these emotions. Consequently, voter turnout decreases, as was witnessed in the 2014 elections in Texas. 

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