Compassionate Democrats and Tough Republicans: How Ideology Shapes Partisan Stereotypes

Scott Clifford

As partisan polarization has increased over the past decades, so has affective polarization in the mass public. People increasingly dislike their partisan opponents and hold negative stereotypes about their character and motivations. According to prominent theories of partisan identity, these negative stereotypes are merely rationalizations that serve to justify partisan discrimination and intolerance. However, an alternative explanation is that these stereotypes are largely accurate reflections of the increasingly clear ideological and value-based differences between the parties. I put these competing views to test in two studies and find support for the latter view – partisan stereotypes seem to reflect the parties’ values.

In the first study, I used a national sample to examine the character traits that partisans desire and the traits that partisans perceive in each other. The results show that partisans place different weights on several aspects of moral character. Democrats placed relatively more value on being compassionate and fair-minded, while Republicans placed more emphasis on being loyal, obedient, and wholesome. However, these trait preferences were much more strongly related to a person’s ideology than to their partisan identity. Stereotypes of partisans were largely consistent with these differences as well. People saw Democrats as relatively more compassionate and fair-minded, while Republicans were seen as relatively more loyal, obedient, and wholesome.

In a second study, I used an experiment to examine whether ideology is driving these partisan stereotypes. I asked survey respondents to judge the character of a series of fictional individuals. The partisanship and ideological stances of these fictional individuals were randomly assigned, allowing us to tease apart the source of partisan stereotypes. The results show that people draw reliable trait inferences from partisan cues, which is consistent with the first study. Democrats were perceived as relatively more compassionate and fair-minded, while Republicans were seen as relatively more patriotic, tough, and wholesome. However, ideological information about the fictional individuals had much larger effects than information about their partisan identities, and the effects of partisan cues were diminished when ideological information was provided. These results suggest that partisan stereotypes are not mere rationalizations, but largely accurate reflections of the ideological and value-based differences between the parties.

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