Political scientist Sheri Berman has an excellent piece in The Guardian that covers some of the most relevant social science on identity politics and its implications:
Rather than being directly translated into behavior, psychologists tell us beliefs can remain latent until “triggered”. In a fascinating study, Karen Stenner shows in The Authoritarian Dynamic that while some individuals have “predispositions” towards intolerance, these predispositions require an external stimulus to be transformed into actions. Or, as another scholar puts it: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group … But when they perceive no such threat, their behavior is not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.”
What pushes that button, Stenner and others find, is group-based threats. In experiments researchers easily shift individuals from indifference, even modest tolerance, to aggressive defenses of their own group by exposing them to such threats. Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, for example, found that simply making white Americans aware that they would soon be a minority increased their propensity to favor their own group and become wary of those outside it. (Similar effects were found among Canadians. Indeed, although this tendency is most dangerous among whites since they are the most powerful group in western societies, researchers have consistently found such propensities in all groups.)
Building on such research, Diana Mutz recently argued that Trump’s stress on themes like growing immigration, the power of minorities and the rise of China highlighted status threats and fears particularly among whites without a college education, prompting a “defensive reaction” that was the most important factor in his election. This “defensive reaction” also explains why Trump’s post-election racist, xenophobic and sexist statements and reversal of traditional Republican positions on trade and other issues have helped him – they keep threats to whites front and center, provoking anger, fear and a strong desire to protect their own group.
Understanding why Trump found it easy to trigger these reactions requires examining broader changes in American society. In an excellent new book, Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason analyzes perhaps the most important of these: a decades-long process of “social sorting”. Mason notes that although racial and religious animosity has been present throughout American history, only recently has it lined up neatly along partisan lines. In the past, the Republican and Democratic parties attracted supporters with different racial, religious, ideological and regional identities, but gradually Republicans became the party of white, evangelical, conservative and rural voters, while the Democrats became associated with non-whites, non-evangelical, liberal and metropolitan voters.
This lining up of identities dramatically changes electoral stakes: previously if your party lost, other parts of your identity were not threatened, but today losing is also a blow to your racial, religious, regional and ideological identity. (Mason cites a study showing that in the week following Obama’s 2012 election, Republicans felt sadder than American parents after the Newtown school shooting or Bostonians after the Boston Marathon bombing.) This social sorting has led partisans of both parties to engage in negative stereotyping and even demonization. (One study found less support for “out-group” marriage among partisan Republicans and Democrats than for interracial marriage among Americans overall.)
Once the other party becomes an enemy rather than an opponent, winning becomes more important than the common good and compromise becomes an anathema. Such situations also promote emotional rather than rational evaluations of policies and evidence. Making matters worse, social scientists consistently find that the most committed partisans, those who are the angriest and have the most negative feelings towards out-groups, are the most politically engaged.
She continues, pointing out that
research suggests that calling people racist when they do not see themselves that way is counterproductive. As noted above, while there surely are true bigots, studies show that not all those who exhibit intolerant behavior harbor extreme racial animus. Moreover, as Stanford psychologist Alana Conner notes, if the goal is to diminish intolerance “telling people they’re racist, sexist and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere. It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.”
This has obvious implications for recent debates about civility. Incivility is central to Trump’s strategy – it helps him galvanize his supporters by reminding them how “bad” and “threatening” the other side is. Since this has become such a hot-button topic on the left, it is worth being clear what incivility is. There is no definition of democracy that does not accept peaceful protest and other forms of vociferous political engagement. Incivility is about form – not substance; it is consistently defined by scholars as including invective, ridicule, emotionality, histrionics and other forms of personal attacks or norm-defying behavior. By engaging in even superficially similar tactics, Democrats abet Trump’s ability to do this – as one Trump supporter put it, every time Democrats attack him “it makes me angry, which causes me to want to defend him more” – potentially alienate wavering Republican-leaning independents, and help divert debate from policies, corruption and other substantive issues.
Of course, there is a double standard here and this, along with the psychic release that comes with venting the anger and grievances that have been building over the past year, are the rationales given by the left for incivility. But against these must be weighed incivility’s impact on upcoming elections as well as the overall health of democracy. (Scholars consistently find that incivility spreads rapidly, generates anger and defensive reactions, demobilizes moderates and activates the strongest partisans, corrodes faith in government, trust in institutions and respect for our fellow citizens.)
Over the long term of course the goal is repairing democracy and diminishing intolerance and for this promoting cross-cutting cleavages within civil society and political organizations is absolutely necessary. (Here, recent debates about ideological diversity and the new grassroots activism within the Democratic party is relevant.) Scholars have long recognized the necessity of cross-cutting cleavages to healthy democracy. In his classic study, the Social Requisites of Democracy, Seymour Martin Lipset, for example, noted that “the available evidence suggests that the chances for stable democracy are enhanced to the extent that groups and individuals have a number of cross-cutting, politically relevant affiliations”.
More specifically, research has linked cross-cutting cleavages with toleration, moderation and conflict prevention. This too has implications for contemporary debates about “identity politics”. Perhaps ironically, identity politics is a both more powerful and efficacious for Republicans (and rightwing populists more generally) than it is for Democrats, since the former are more homogeneous.
…In addition, Americans are more divided socially than they are on the issues; there is significant agreement even on controversial topics like abortion, gun control, immigration and economic policy. Promoting cross-cutting cleavages and diminishing social divisions might therefore help productive policymaking actually occur.
Things to consider the next time you feel the itch to promote or debate party politics.
1 thought on “The Social Science of Identity Politics”
As analysis, this seems reasonable, but as a prescription, it misses something crucial: what Democrats say doesn’t matter. No amount of flattery and search for compromise will keep Fox News and President Trump from telling tales about how uncivil Democrats are and how threatened (codes for) white people are. They’re ahead of the research in this area—they’ve known for years that their listeners ignore contrary data once they feel threatened, so they’ve invested in making sure those listeners always feel threatened.
I know of no solution.
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