My Team vs. Your Team: The Political Arena Lives Up to Its Name

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, September 29, 2008

With America divided right down the middle for the third presidential election in a row, most people would not be surprised to hear that Democratic and Republican partisans perceive a widening gap between their presidential choices. In 2004, for example, die-hards in both parties felt that the choice between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry was much sharper on a host of issues than in any presidential contest going back to 1984.

But when political scientist Marc J. Hetherington quizzed moderates, he found to his surprise that he got the opposite answer. Compared with party loyalists, moderates saw far less difference between the candidates. If anything, moderates in 2004 saw the Republican and Democratic nominees as being more alike than in any election since 1988.

The schism between moderates and partisans has intensified in this election, said Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. On a seven-point scale, partisans see twice as much of a difference between the presidential candidates as moderates do. Where passionate Republicans find it incomprehensible that anyone could support Barack Obama and committed Democrats find it inconceivable that anyone could support John McCain, moderates see the choice as Tweedledum or Tweedledee.

Part of the difference stems from the fact that moderates are generally less interested in politics. But Hetherington believes that much of the loyalists' perception of a yawning divide has little to do with issues. Rather, he said, what has happened in recent years is that partisans have come to identify with their parties in much the manner that sports fans identify with their teams. The strong views they feel on many issues do not drive their party affiliation; it is their party affiliation that drives their strong views.

"Let's say you are a left-leaning person," Hetherington said. "You don't really follow politics, but through the blogs you know the Democrats are here on the bailout and immigration and health care. All of a sudden, you know where you are supposed to be on these issues. It is not as though you really care about the bailout."

There is another piece of evidence that party identification rather than ideology is behind the growing polarization of the electorate: On a variety of unrelated issues -- gun control, the economy, war, same-sex marriage, abortion, the environment, the financial bailout -- the views of Republicans and Democrats have become increasingly monolithic. There is no reason someone who is against abortion should necessarily also be against gun control or for economic deregulation, but that is exactly what tends to happen among committed Republicans. Loyal Democrats have similarly monolithic views on unrelated issues.

"Party identification is part of your social identity, in the same way you relate to your religion or ethnic group or baseball team," said Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. This explains why, on a range of issues, partisans invariably feel their side can do nothing wrong and the other side can do nothing right. By contrast, moderates don't feel there is a yawning divide on issues because they don't identify with one party or another. Moderates, in other words, are like people who are uninterested in sports and roll their eyes when fans of opposing teams hurl abuse at each other.

Another consequence of intense party identification is that the Democratic and Republican parties have rid themselves of contrarians. Liberal Republicans and, to a lesser extent, conservative Democrats are endangered species.

Jacobson and Hetherington are not suggesting that Americans never clashed with each other in previous eras. But what they are saying is that these divisions were not primarily along party lines.

The Vietnam War bitterly divided the country, for example, but the divide was hardly partisan. Democrats supported the war more under Democratic administrations and Republicans more under Republican administrations, but the gap in partisan opinion was about five percentage points. At the height of the nation's debate on the Iraq war, by contrast, the gap in opinion between Republicans and Democrats was 63 percentage points.

"What is pulling it is partisanship," Hetherington said. "I don't think people have strong ideological commitments on any of these things, but they know the team they are on. You might actually have a middle-ground position on abortion, but you find all the people you agree with on small-government issues are conservatives on abortion, so you become conservative on it, too. You may even come to believe it over time."

Does this mean that partisans never think about issues -- that they are just mindless automatons waving party banners?

No, said Hetherington and Jacobson. There are certainly people who think carefully about issues before deciding which side to support, but that cannot explain why the electorate has become so intensely polarized on so many unrelated issues. Knowing whether a person is a Republican or a Democrat today tells you far more about their views on many issues than it did in previous eras.

One implication of this thesis is that it makes little difference what positions presidential candidates take on issues. People's views -- on the war, immigration or the economic bailout -- come down largely to their party affiliation.

"You look at the candidates and you ask, 'What does it mean for my kind of people?' " said Donald P. Green, a political scientist at Yale University. "If you are a feminist or a Christian evangelical, it does not have to hinge on what those candidates will do in real terms [for you] as much as 'a victory for them is a victory for my team.' "

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