Perceiving Political Polarization in the United States: Party Identity Strength and Attitude Extremity Exacerbate the Perceived Partisan Divide

58 Pages Posted: 9 Dec 2012 Last revised: 22 Oct 2014

Jacob Westfall

University of Colorado Boulder

Leaf Van Boven

University of Colorado Boulder

John R. Chambers

St. Louis University

Charles M. Judd

University of Colorado at Boulder - Department of Psychology

Date Written: October 20, 2014

Abstract

An important component of political polarization in the United States is the degree to which ordinary people perceive political polarization. Social perception shapes social reality. People’s beliefs about the polarization between Democrats’ and Republicans’ attitudes can shape their political behavior. We present a three-factor framework to understand people’s perceptions of political attitude polarization between Democratic and Republican parties and between presidential candidates. We suggest that people perceive greater political polarization when they: (a) estimate the attitudes of those categorized as being on the “opposing side”; (b) identify strongly as either Democrat or Republican; and (c) hold relatively extreme partisan attitudes — particularly when those partisan attitudes align with people’s partisan political identity. In support of this framework, we present results from the American National Election Study, a large-scale study of representative Americans, in which people estimate the attitudes of Democrats, Republicans, and of the presidential candidates. In addition, we find that people generally exaggerate political polarization between the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans, and that those people who perceive the greatest political polarization are most likely to report having been politically active, including voting, persuading others, and making campaign contributions. These patterns of polarization perception emerge for both Democrats and Republicans.

Keywords: attitudes, identities, political psychology, polarization, politics, American National Election Study

Suggested Citation

Westfall, Jacob and Van Boven, Leaf and Chambers, John R. and Judd, Charles M., Perceiving Political Polarization in the United States: Party Identity Strength and Attitude Extremity Exacerbate the Perceived Partisan Divide (October 20, 2014). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2186601 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2186601

Jacob Westfall

University of Colorado Boulder ( email )

1070 Edinboro Drive
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

Leaf Van Boven (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Boulder ( email )

University of Colorado Boulder
Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, 345 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States
303.735.5238 (Phone)
303.492.2967 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://psych.colorado.edu/~vanboven/

John R. Chambers

St. Louis University ( email )

3511 LaClede Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63103
United States

Charles M. Judd

University of Colorado at Boulder - Department of Psychology ( email )

Boulder, 80309
United States

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