Dr. Alexa Bankert, Associate Professor of Political Science, co-authored a book entitled When Politics Becomes Personal: The Effect of Partisan Identity on Anti-Democratic Behavior, in which she weighs the consequences that demonizing one’s political opponent has on party success and perceptions. Dr. Bankert further illuminates the scope of her book in her answers to the questions below.

What influenced you to research partisan identity and democratic behaviors?

I aimed to understand how – and under what conditions – our party loyalty could possibly outweigh our commitment to democratic norms and institutions. After all, political parties are supposed to be a means to an end (i.e. the democratic process), not an end in itself. I think it is important to look at the consequences of our unconditional and uncritical party allegiance for the functioning of our political system.

Can you explain the difference between positive and negative partisanship?

Positive partisanship describes the support for a political party and its policies. Negative partisanship describes the strong disdain for a political party and its policies. The interesting finding in my book is that one type of partisanship can exist without the other. For example, in the U.S., we see a growing number of citizens who feel lukewarm at best about their own party but strongly dislike the opposition party. In these cases, negative partisanship outweighs positive partisanship. At the same time, it is possible to feel passionate about one’s own party without demonizing the other party. This is one of the key arguments of my book: Partisan animosity is not inevitable.

What would it look like if candidates chose not to vilify each other?

First, candidates would critically examine their opponent’s policies, not their character. Second, candidates would propose their own policy agenda, not just attacking the policies of their opponent. This would foster a much more productive political debate that can be healthy for the democratic process instead of toxic.

Why should someone read your book?

If someone is tired of hearing about inevitable and unbridgeable partisan divisions, this book is them. I hope that the book shows that an alternative is possible; that we can strongly support our own party without vilifying our political opponents and their supporters.