A collaborative effort between Patrick Miller of the University of Kansas and Pamela Johnston Conover of the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers new insight into the growing phenomenon behind political polarization in the United States. The study, titled Red and Blue States of Mind: Partisan Hostility and Voting in the United States, was published in Political Research Quarterly on March 30.
The authors argue that the voters who are most likely to participate in elections are those who hold a very strong partisan identity. As a result, elections become less about substance, and more reminiscent of a sports game, where the goal is to win at any cost. The University of Kansas news service summed up the study, saying:
"They found that many average voters with strong party commitments — both Democrats and Republicans — care more about their parties simply winning the election than they do either ideology or issues. Unlike previous research, the study found that loyalty to the party itself was the source of partisan rivalry and incivility, instead of a fundamental disagreement over issues."
The trend toward greater polarization within the American electorate has been happening for years, but the contributing factors are numerous and complex
A study by Pew Research shows polarization has steadily increased since 2002. Miller and Conover's study examined a few possible causes, one of which was the tendency for partisans to consume only media content that reinforces their own worldview.
In a video, Miller explained that these tendencies are having an impact on Congress itself by stifling compromise and breeding a political environment that lacks civility.
"We're not thinking about politics in the way that most Founders wanted, which is to think about issues, be open to compromise and not be attached to parties," said Miller. "We're looking at politics through a simplistic partisan view in which we think our side is good and their side is bad."
Among other things, the study found:
- 41 percent of partisans agreed that simply winning elections is more important to them than policy or ideological goals;
35 percent agreed that policy is a more important motivator for them to participate in politics;
Only 24 percent valued both equally or expressed no opinion; and
38 percent of partisans agreed that their party should use any tactics necessary to “win elections and issue debates.”