Partisan Dehumanization in American Politics

Erin C. Cassese, PhD

University of Delaware

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Incivility in political discourse isn’t just a matter of insults and attacks – it is a multi-faceted phenomenon. One form that incivility takes is dehumanizing language and political rhetoric. Dehumanization involves the denial of human qualities and characteristics to individuals and groups, perceiving them instead as animalistic, mechanistic, or humanoid rather than fully human. Research in social psychology has linked dehumanization to negative intergroup attitudes and behaviors, including aggression and even violence. For example, research shows that dehumanization of undocumented immigrants and Muslims shapes punitive immigration attitudes and anti-terrorist policies, as well as support for the political leaders who endorse and campaign on these kinds of policies. While these relationships clearly have partisan implications, I wondered whether dehumanization is a distinctively partisan phenomenon; that is, do Americans also share a tendency to dehumanization their political opponents – specifically members of the opposition party?

Anecdotal evidence from political elites and pundits suggests that they might. For instance, Eric Trump said of Congressional Democrats who supported the Mueller probe “I’ve never seen hatred like this, and to me they’re not even people. It’s so, so sad, I mean morality is just gone, morals have flown out the window.” Following the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, Todd Starnes of Fox News tweeted his thoughts about the Democratic outcry : “Those screaming animals in the Senate gallery should be tasered, handcuffed, and dragged out of the building.” Both of these comments reflect dehumanization in that they expressly deny the humanity of a particular group (in the case of Trump’s comment) or liken the group to non-human creatures (in the case of Starnes’s comment).

Is this kind of thinking primarily an elite phenomenon, or do rank-and-file partisans also dehumanize their political opponents? If they do, what are the consequences for partisan conflict? I address these questions in a forthcoming article at Political Behavior. To explore partisan dehumanization, I conducted two public opinion surveys just prior to the 2016 US presidential race. I found that partisans consistently rate their own party as more human than members of the opposing party – in both subtle and blatant ways. This tendency to dehumanize one’s political opponents was moderated by partisan identity strength, such that strongly-identified partisans more readily dehumanized their political opponents. This result is consistent with prior research showing that perceptual biases associated with partisanship are more pronounced among strongly identified partisans.

Partisan dehumanization was correlated with a preference for increased social distance from the opposing party and also perceptions that the opposing party is more morally distant from one’s own party. Both of these relationships point toward declining interpersonal tolerance and moral disengagement processes, whereby dehumanized people and groups are seen as lesser moral agents and thus less worthy of moral consideration. These results highlight the importance of attributions of humanity for social and political cognition and offer a new direction for research on negative partisanship and political polarization. They also point toward the broader consequences of incivility in political discourse.

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