Given that sexual assault is not a political matter, the deep party divide is a sign of how partisan the US is becoming
Party polarization is tearing at the fabric of American society. The partisan reaction to sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh demonstrates how far the threads have frayed. An Economist/YouGov poll shows Democrats by about an eight to one margin believe that Kavanaugh committed assault, while Republicans by a similar margin believe he didn’t.
Given that sexual assault is not a partisan matter, the deep party divide suggests something both important and unhealthy. The Kavanaugh controversy might be especially emotional, but differing reactions to the exact same events are not rare these days. More than at any time in memory, partisans are more highly motivated to see the world the way they want to see it, rather than how it actually is.
Republicans, for example, have demonstrated an incredible capacity to see, hear, and speak no evil even when it comes to President Trump’s most questionable actions and assertions. According to a Quinnipiac poll in January 2018, about three-quarters of Republicans think he’s a good role model for their children.
Republicans and Democrats don’t just disagree with each other on issues; they find the other dangerous and malevolent
Democrats, for their part, don’t seem willing to acknowledge inarguably positive developments for the country. A Gallup poll from July 2018 found that Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats (78 to 36%) to rate the economy as “excellent” or “good,” realizing full well that Trump and the Republicans benefit from the strong economy.
Hatred, pure and simple, is the roux of this partisan stew. In the history of public opinion polls, which dates back nearly 100 years, Republicans and Democrats have never expressed as much dislike for the other party (or each other) as they do today. They don’t just disagree with each other on the issues; they find the other dangerous and malevolent.
The antipathy results from a new line dividing Republicans from Democrats. The proper size of government and the importance of free markets used to cleave the two. Today, after decades of intense fights over race, family structure and, more recently, the war on terrorism, Republicans and Democrats increasingly choose their party based on gut-level worldviews about how safe or dangerous the world is – whether it is best to explore its possibilities or hunker down against its perils.
Before the 2016 election, a survey asked Americans which came closest to their view – “our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves” or “it’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated”. About 80% of Trump supporters chose the first. About 80% of Clinton supporters chose the second. Talk about worlds apart.
The result is a zero-sum politics anchored in Americans’ most basic instincts. Our research demonstrates that – of all things – the characteristics people believe children should possess are now central to the political identities they choose. You read that right. We did not ask people whether they were liberal or conservative or want more government or less. We asked them about qualities children should have. They are important because they reveal people’s worldviews. Whereas the answers to these questions had no bearing on Americans’ partisanship in the 1990s, they are a critical element today.
On the Republican side of the worldview divide sit those who prefer children who respect their elders, are obedient, have good manners, and are well-behaved. They have what we call fixed worldviews. Because the world is dangerous to them, traditions and conventions should be fixed in place to maintain order. This worldview sees male authority figures such as Judge Kavanaugh sympathetically because male authority has always stood at the top of the cultural hierarchy. As such, they are concerned about new immigrants and threatened by the prospect of unconventional groups such as transgendered people sharing their bathrooms.
On the Democratic side are those who prefer independent, self-reliant, curious, and considerate children. They have what we call fluid worldviews. Because the world is, to them, safe to explore, challenging old folkways is feasible. Sometimes-discriminatory traditions and hierarchies must be swept away. This worldview sees traditional male authority as an unfair privilege that has allowed men to get away with anything and everything, including sexually assaulting women, without punishment. Fluid types celebrate new approaches and champion those who challenge old norms.
Worldviews operate at the gut level, shaping opinions before conscious thought begins. When it comes to the Kavanaugh allegations, specifically, fixed-worldview Republicans reflexively want to believe the man and will search for evidence to support that first impulse. Fluid-worldview Democrats reflexively want to believe the woman and will perform the same biased search for information to buttress their first impulse.
Worldviews also tell us a lot about Americans’ nonpolitical choices – where to live, how long to go to school, whether to worship God, not to mention their everyday consumer choices. They always have and always will.
The fixed prefer to live in outlying areas, tend to be religious, have less formal education, and prefer the tried and true when it comes to both their politics and their consumer goods. They like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, Folgers and Bud Light, not Peet’s or Sierra Nevada. And they’re overwhelmingly Republicans.
The fluid tend to be city dwellers, secular in their approach to religion and prefer the vanguard in both their politics and consumer choices. Biryani and a pinot gris sounds nice. Their grandparents’ coffee is boring to them and light beer is swill. And they’re predominantly Democrats.
What is different about this moment in history is our worldviews point us toward our party identities, imbuing them with increased meaning. Because worldview now provides the foundation for both political and nonpolitical choices, Republicans and Democrats have become walking stereotypes to each other, which intensifies the negative feelings that exist between the two.
Worse, because their differing worldviews cause them to live and work apart, Republicans and Democrats do not encounter each other as often as before, causing negative stereotypes to harden. In fact, recent research demonstrates that partisans are more likely to discriminate against people from the other party than people of different races are to discriminate against each other.
When feelings are this deeply negative, it is little wonder that partisans seem so blind to obvious transgressions of their own leaders and that one side roots for the other to fail when that side is in power. The dynamics should be familiar to any reader who has ever hated another person. You always see yourself as virtuous and your enemy as villainous. And, if the feelings are sufficiently strong, you may even root for bad things to happen to your nemesis.
When worldviews divide partisans, it is best not to expect much to change. All the hatred has caused partisans’ political identities to become central to how they see themselves. The cognitive dissonance associated with giving an inch to their opponents overwhelms Americans’ rational selves. Partisans will perform Olympic-caliber mental gymnastics to maintain their beliefs and will seek information sources not in order to discern the truth, but to reinforce their existing beliefs, even – perhaps especially – when a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court is on the line.
Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler are the co-authors of Prius or pickup: How the answers to four simple questions explain America’s great divide (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which is out on October 9 2018