Party Animals? Extreme Partisan Polarization and Dehumanization

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James L. Martherus, Vanderbilt University

Andres G. Martinez, Sonoma State University

Paul K. Piff, University of California, Irvine

Alexander G. Theodoridis, University of California, Merced

 

The visceral, affectively-charged, identity-based, and often negative nature of partisan polarization in the United States has been the subject of much scholarly attention. A burgeoning literature on partisan dehumanization suggests a qualitative shift may be occurring—from partisan animosity to partisan dehumanization (the denial of human characteristics to out-partisans). Recent examples of dehumanizing rhetoric by elites on both sides abound: Bill Maher called Republicans “treasonous rats.” Alex Jones described Democrats as “the ultimate cowardly sacks of garbage,” Harry Reid dubbed President Trump the GOP’s “Frankenstein monster,” and Eric Trump said Democrats investigating his father were “not even people.”

In light of new work in social-personality psychology, we investigate the extent to which contemporary hyper-polarization of the electorate has devolved into a willingness by voters to apply dehumanizing metaphors to out-partisans. To do this, we bring to bear three novel large-sample, broadly representative online surveys, fielded over the course of four years, and across two presidential administrations.

We begin by looking at two different measures of dehumanization (one subtle and one blatant). This uncovers striking, consistent observational evidence that MOST partisans dehumanize members of the opposing party.

We delve into the relationships between dehumanization and important hallmarks of partisan intensity and polarization. We find that inter-partisan dehumanization is most closely related to extreme affective polarization. In addition, we show that dehumanization is associated with biased partisan-motivated reasoning and correlated with the degree to which partisans hold authoritarian/fixed worldviews.

We uncover one possible source of this troubling phenomenon with an experiment offering causal leverage to examine openness to dehumanization in the processing of new information about misdeeds by in- and out-partisans. Participants were exposed to identical information about a melee at a gathering, with the partisanship of the perpetrators randomly assigned. We find pronounced willingness by both Democrats and Republicans to differentially dehumanize members of the out-party (even when the transgression in question was the same).

These findings illuminate the nature, depth, and form of contemporary partisan polarization. Inter-partisan dehumanization may (in part) explain the increased reluctance to find common ground on political issues, and hence constitute a growing threat to the democratic enterprise. And, if not curbed, tendencies toward dehumanization may presage (as they have in other contexts) a heightening of partisan violence.

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