Polarization Across Party Lines, or Politics as Contact Sport

By Shanto Iyengar and Richard Morin
Wednesday, March 29, 2006; 5:44 PM

We designed this study to examine the question of party polarization within the electorate. We asked people to play a modified version of the whack-a-mole arcade game. Participants were randomly assigned to whack either celebrities, politicians, or foreign dictators, an exercise that produced intriguing results. We also surveyed participants' attitudes towards the Republican and Democratic parties and key political figures. Half the participants were randomly assigned to complete the survey before they played the game, the other half answered the questions after playing. The goal: to determine whether those who whacked away at Hillary Clinton, Condi Rice, Saddam Hussein, or Michael Jackson became more or less favorably disposed to Republicans or Democrats than they were at the outset. The answer: mostly no effects, but with a notable exception that suggests why playing the foreign threat card and perhaps even real-world whacking -- think Iraq and Saddam Hussein -- may help the party in power.

The question of whether American politics is more or less polarized today than in eras past has in fact polarized scholars. There is agreement that politicians and political activists have polarized, with each party having a greater tendency to direct its appeals to voters with extreme, rather than middle-of-the-road preferences. But at the level of the public, some scholars believe that increasing polarization is an illusion, or perhaps an invention of the news media. The impression of polarization may result from parties that nominate extreme rather than centrist candidates, and an electorate that is forced to choose between the limited and unsatisfying alternatives. As Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina has pointed out, polarized ballot choices should not be confused with polarized policy preferences.

Still, there can be no denying the increased vitriol that accompanies party politics at the mass level. There is a wealth of time series data tracking Americans' evaluations of the incumbent president. These data show that on balance, Democrats' and Republicans' evaluations of a president of the other party have steadily soured. UCSD political scientist Gary Jacobson's analysis of these data document a widening chasm between Republicans and Democrats, with the percentage of partisans who have moved to the extremes ("strong approval" or "strong disapproval") increasing significantly over time. In fact, polarized assessments of presidential performance are higher today than at any other time in recent history, including the months preceding the resignation of President Nixon.

We designed this study to examine the current state of inter-party relations. Our total of approximately 1500 participants were randomly assigned to one of three arcade-style "whack-a-pol" games in which players score points depending on how many moving targets they can hit with a hammer. The targets appear on the screen at random locations (and for only a few seconds) making it relatively difficult to single out particular individuals for differential whacking.

As shown in Figure 1, the games varied the selection of targets. In the first condition, players were given eight relatively well-known, contemporary political figures -- four Democrats and four Republicans. Players assigned to the second condition could take aim at a rogues gallery of infamous foreign dictators, past and present. Finally, the third game offered a set of celebrity targets drawn from the worlds of music, television, and film.

The games were programmed so that we could track frequency of actual whacking as a measure of political hostility. Given the make-up of the three conditions, we expected the lowest level of whacking in the celebrity game, an intermediate level with current politicians, and the highest overall scores in the dictator condition. We also anticipated that players' party affiliation would strongly guide their targeting within the politician game, unlike dictators and celebrities, who would be subject to "equal opportunity" hammering. (This proved right.)

At a somewhat more subtle level, we also investigated the consequences of whacking behavior. We wondered specifically whether the venting of aggressive tendencies would serve to purge, or reinforce, the psyche of ill-will. (Mostly, neither.) We also wondered whether participants who had participated in the dictator condition would have less polarized responses to evaluations of political figures than participants in the politician condition. Our rationale underlying the inclusion of the "whack-a-dictator" game was to test whether the opportunity to bash well-known foreign dictators (including some responsible for genocide and mass murders) would have the effect of muting partisan conflict. Against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein, Chairman Mao, Kim Jong-il and Idi Amin, surely President Bush and Vice-President Cheney appear less objectionable. In short, we hypothesized that we could reduce the level of partisan polarization by making national identity (Americans versus foreigners) more salient than party affiliation. (This theory proved out, but only for independents.)

Figure 2 presents the average level of whacking in the three conditions. On the surface, it appears surprising that the politicians game elicited the lowest level of whacking; the average number of successful whacks was significantly higher in the other games. But we do not think this results reflects sheer goodwill towards our political figures; in fact, the lower level of whacking reflects greater selectivity in the politician game. Instead of simply maximizing the number of hits on all available targets (the "equal opportunity" whacking strategy), players sought out targets from the opposing party. This strategy effectively reduces the number of available targets by half, thus lowering the player's total score.

Who were the most disliked figures in each condition? The answer depends on your politics, but only in the whack-a-pol condition. Hitler proved to be the most whacked target in the dictator condition for Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. There was similar convergence in the celebrity condition on Michael Jackson. But no such agreement prevailed in whack-a-pol: Hillary Clinton was singled out by the Republicans while Vice President Cheney was the favored target of Democrats and independents.

Figure 3 zeroes in on the tendency of Democrats, Republicans and independents to target either Democrats or Republicans. The pattern is clear -- Cheney, Rice, Rove, and O'Reilly were the preferred targets of Democrats, while Clinton, Kerry, Dean and Franken received corresponding treatment from the Republicans. The lowered level of total whacking in the politician game is revealed to be illusory: in fact, the two highest whacking scores in Figure 3 correspond to Democratic politicians hit by Republicans, and Republicans hit by Democrats. This pattern of selective whacking does not emerge in either of the other conditions -- communist or military dictators, and rap artists or movie stars were treated even-handedly by Democrats and Republicans.

Turning to the effects of the manipulation on inter-party ill will, we started with the idea that polarization implies not only that people are divided, but that each side holds the other in low esteem. We asked participants a variety of questions concerning the two political parties and some of their principal representatives. One set of questions asked whether the parties and their leaders were "genuinely concerned about the well-being of all Americans" and another asked if they were "more interested in winning votes than addressing national problems." Because one half the players were given the survey questions before the game and the rest completed the survey after playing, we were able to observe the pre-post change, if any, in evaluations of the other side.

Figure 4 shows participants' average evaluations of Republicans and Democrats on a 0-1 scale where 0 represents the most negative and 1 the most positive evaluation possible. The Democrats place the Republicans close to the point of maximum negativity (.88); Republican assessments of Democrats are less extreme (.74). Conversely, both groups place their own party on the positive side of the scale (although only mildly so). The difference between the "in-party" and "out-party" evaluations were massive for both parties, and more so for Democrats than for Republicans. Of course, the more "moderate" stance offered by Republicans may reflect the present state of the world -- their President has initiated an unpopular war, sent the federal budget to new record levels, and presided over various unseemly debacles (such as Hurricane Katrina and Vice President Cheney's marksmanship).

Last, we consider whether whacking is cathartic. Since there were too few Republicans in the sample for meaningful comparison (only 11 percent overall), we limited the analysis to Democrats and non-partisans. Their pre to post-game evaluations of Republicans in the three conditions are shown in Figure 5.

We found no evidence of increased hostility (although the hostility scores were so high that it might have been difficult to observe increases.) There was only one instance of statistically significant moderation -- independents who played whack-a-dictator expressed less harsh evaluations of the Republican party and President Bush when they were surveyed after rather than before the game (the effect amounted to a nine percent reduction in negativity towards Republicans). The Democrats remained unmoved in all cases -- their outraged assessment of the opposition held steady no matter which version of the game they were given.

In sum, the data reported here suggest that partisans hold highly critical images of their political opponents. For Democrats, President Bush and the Republican party are craven vote-seekers, while Hillary Clinton and John Kerry are principled custodians of the public good. For Republicans, the same pattern holds, although it is less extreme. (Clinton and Dean are no less suspect, while President Bush is a true leader.) "Whacking" opponents has little effect in terms of either providing catharsis or increasing rage, but the "foreign threat" card does seem to alleviate harsh assessments of the Republican party and President Bush, especially among independents. More generally, reminding people of foreign threats may sway them in the direction of greater support for the incumbent administration.

Shanto Iyengar is Professor of Communication and director of the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University. Richard Morin is director of Washington Post polling and a staff writer.

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