Beyond 2016: The Rise of Negative Partisanship in American Politics

By Alexa Bankert, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science

What does it mean to be a Republican? A large share of GOP supporters used to answer this question with references to free trade, Christian values, and small government. That was before the election of Donald Trump. In the post-Trump era, uncertainty about the Republican Party’s brand has increased dramatically. Ask a Republican now to define her political party and, in many cases, the answer will be “Not being a Democrat.” This response is indicative of the rise of – what political scientists call – negative partisanship in the U.S.: Americans feel lukewarm at best about their own party but feel deep disdain towards the other party. This phenomenon was a vital part of the 2016 elections to the extent that political pundits interpreted America’s vote choice as a decision against a political party rather than in support of one.

Data from the Pew Research Center1 provides further evidence for this notion: Only 26% of Democrats report feeling enthusiastic about their party while 55% report feeling afraid of the Republican Party. Similarly, 49% of Republicans express fear of the Democratic Party while only a mere 16% feel proud of their own party. Put differently, the opposition party is capable of provoking much more powerful negative emotions than our own party is capable of provoking powerful positive emotions. This asymmetry is indicative of a larger problem in American politics: We increasingly define our political parties in opposition to one another without necessarily knowing about the policies and values that define the Democratic and Republican Parties. Being Republican means “not being a Democrat,” while being a Democrat means “not being a Republican.” Within this mindset, substantive policy proposals and reforms are oftentimes pushed aside for the sake of blocking or even harming the other party’s reputation and electoral chances. For a long time, political scientists have assumed that this negativity is an almost natural by-product of strong partisan attachments in the U.S.: You are a strong Democrat so naturally you dislike the GOP. Older generations of readers might remember a time when such an assumption sounded untenable, but decades of polarization in the U.S. have led us to believe that disdainful inter-party relationships are inevitable in a two-party system where politics can oftentimes feel like a zero-sum game.

In a recent study of mine, I asked a sample of 1,051Americans2 about their feelings and behaviors towards members of the other party: about a third of respondents reported that their day is ruined when the opposing party is doing well in the polls. Similarly, 34% report that they get angry when someone praises the other party, while a staggering 40% admit that it makes them feel good when someone criticizes the other party. Most telling, however, is the finding that 40% of respondents conceded that they tended to recall more negative things about the opposing party than positive things about their own party. This is negative partisanship. American partisans used to primarily define themselves over what they are, but now, they increasingly define themselves over what they are not.

So how did we get here? While political scientists are still trying to answer that question, research in social psychology has taught us two things about the development of negative partisanship: First, it is not a consequence of strong party attachments. Put differently, you can, in fact, be a strong Republican or Democrat without hoping for a criminal investigation of the other party’s candidate. Second, negative partisanship often develops when a party is internally divided. Party elites utilize rhetoric that demonizes the other party in an attempt to distract from their internal divisions and lack of a coherent policy agenda. We can see this strategy applied by both parties’ elites as they struggle with intra-party conflicts about their leadership choices and ideological direction.

While negative partisanship is a successful strategy for short-term electoral benefits, it is less conducive to the development of strong policy consensus among party members. Both Democrats and Republicans owe Americans valid proposals to address the most pressing political issues of our times such as environmental degradation, the underfunded public education system, as well as the lack of access to quality health care for all Americans. As long as we care more about the “other team” losing, no one wins the battles that really matter.

1 The survey was conducted between March 2-28 and April 5 – May 2, 2016.

2 The sample was representative is terms of age, gender, race, and census region.