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Is contemporary partisanship “identity all the way down”?

Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity

Lilliana Mason
University of Chicago Press
2018
192 pp.
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If there is a single buzzword that sums up American politics in the present era, it is “polarization.” Though citizens and commentators alike loosely use the term to refer to the acrimony that characterizes relations between Democrats and Republicans, political scientists often have something very specific in mind when they talk about polarization. These days, that “something” is the tendency for the two political parties to strongly dislike one another—what scholars refer to as “affective polarization.”

But why has affective polarization become such a prominent feature of American political life? In Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason provides a novel and compelling answer.

By way of background, a common explanation for why Democrats and Republicans have come to dislike one another so much is that they take starkly different views on the issues. This would seem to make sense: If your political goals differ from mine, I am less likely to feel warmly about you.

Mason takes issue with this explanation and instead suggests that polarization is rooted in a primal sense of team identification. For many, she argues, being a Democrat or a Republican has become increasingly important to their sense of self. If I identify psychologically with a particular party, my animosity toward the other political “team” and desire for a partisan “victory” become ends in themselves—even when I don’t have especially strong feelings about a specific issue on which we disagree.

Mason argues that party identities have become powerful because they overlap more and more with other important identities, such as race, religious affiliation, or thinking of oneself as a liberal or a conservative. As she puts it, partisans have become “socially sorted”: Liberals, people of color, and the less religious increasingly identify as Democrats, whereas conservatives, whites, and the more religious increasingly identify as Republicans. Thus, partisan affiliations now also imply differences in ideology, race, and religion, reinforcing our sense of distance from, and competition with, those who belong to the opposing party.

Mason fleshes this argument out over the course of an eminently readable narrative. After laying out the book’s basic premise in the first few chapters, she provides descriptive evidence that Americans have socially sorted themselves into different parties as a function of ideology, race, and religion and that they have become more hostile to those on the other partisan team. She then documents the consequences of these developments.

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In Mason’s fifth chapter, perhaps the most important in the book, she provides evidence that it is socially sorted partisans rather than partisans with extreme issue positions who are more likely to dislike members of the other party and show biases in favor of their own party. For example, Democrats who also label themselves as liberals are more likely to dislike Republicans, even when those same Democrats express relatively moderate or even conservative issue positions. In subsequent chapters, Mason expands on this point, demonstrating that citizens whose partisan identities overlap with their ideology, race, or religious orientation are more likely to express anger toward members of the other party and are more likely to bring that anger into the public arena by participating in politics more avidly.

She concludes by reviewing the implications of her argument for the future of American democracy. Though Mason is circumspect about how easily we might tamp down the identity-fueled conflict currently at the heart of American politics, she does discuss several scientifically informed steps for us to consider. Some of these are classic remedies for intergroup conflict emphasized by psychologists, such as increased contact between Democrats and Republicans and finding shared goals or identities that can unite people across partisan lines. Others focus on possible changes in the parties themselves, including a stronger emphasis among party leaders in setting norms of comity and tolerance and the prospect of intensified divisions in the Republican Party that introduce “cross-cutting cleavages that suppress social polarization and social distance.”

Mason’s book is both enjoyable to read and invaluable for making sense of our polarized politics. Above all, it hammers home the overriding importance of social identity for how citizens navigate the political world. Though this has been understood by psychologists for some time (1), it has only recently begun to be fully appreciated by students of political behavior.

References

  1. H. Tajfel, J. C. Turner, in Psychology of Intergroup Relations, S. Worchel, W. G. Austin, Eds. (Nelson-Hall, 1986), pp. 7–24.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Departments of Political Science and Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA.