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The Correlates of Discord: Identity, Issue Alignment, and Political Hostility in Polarized America

Abstract

The American public remains largely moderate on many issues, but incivility and hostility are rife in American politics. In this paper, I argue that the alignment of multiple issue attitudes along the traditional ideological spectrum helps explain the asymmetrical rise in negative political affect. I introduce belief congruence theory as a supplemental theoretical framework to social identity theory. Cross-sectional data reveal a significant association between issue alignment and negative out-party affect that is neither mediated nor moderated by partisan identity. A first-difference approach using two panel studies then addresses potential heterogeneity bias by testing a change-on-change model within individuals. Both panels, which are from different time periods, covering different issues, reveal significant associations between issue alignment and outgroup dislike. In contrast, partisan identity was only significantly associated with ingroup affect. This work suggests that cross-cutting issue preferences could help attenuate political hostility and reiterate the need to reconsider the role of issue-based reasoning in polarized America.

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Notes

  1. The authors, for example, first presented participants with candidate positions and also used an 11-point scale to increase the chance of change.

  2. The Appendix section includes exact question wording for all issue items. In addition, a codebook summarizing all variables used in this study and files to replicate the main analyses are available on Dataverse.

  3. Because pure independents have no discernible ingroup or outgroup, they are excluded from the analyses.

  4. Using the sample mean of 1.95 as a guide, the aligned category in Fig. 2a, b was defined as values greater than 2 on the issue alignment measure (32.3 % of the overall sample), the unaligned category as values below 1 (37.2 %), and the middle category as values 1 and 2 (30.5 %). Robustness checks verified that the overall distribution pattern—whereby the proportion of individuals holding aligned issue positions increases—was not sensitive to changes in category thresholds (e.g., defining aligned as values of 2 and above on the issue alignment measure, unaligned as values of -2 and below, and the middle category as values of −1 to +1).

  5. A random coefficients model, which would allow both the intercept and slope to vary across years, was also tested. However, this model yielded coefficients that were substantively the same and a likelihood ratio test showed no significant difference between the two models. To illustrate, the top panel of Appendix Fig. 5 reveals the consistency of the coefficient for issue alignment on outgroup affect over time, controlling for all other variables in the full model.

  6. Results from models run separately for Democrats and Republicans also revealed that party itself neither moderated nor mediated the relationship between outgroup affect and issue alignment. The issue alignment coefficients were comparable between Democrats (n = 4853, β = −.20, p < .001) and Republicans (n = 3396, β = −.16, p < .001). Similarly, an interaction term between the party identity dummy and issue alignment was substantively and statistically insignificant (n = 8249, β = .03, p = .23).

  7. Although, as previously mentioned, ideological identity has been found to be a weaker source of political identity than partisanship (see Iyengar et al. 2012, p. 414), I ran further models within ideological categories. I found that issue alignment had the same significant effect for non-identifying ideologues (strength of ideological identity = 0) and ideological leaners (strength of ideological identity = 1) as it did for the full sample (β = −.15, p < .001 for both subgroups), suggesting that issue alignment shares a similar association with affect even amongst individuals who do not identify with either ideological group (i.e., non-ideologues).

  8. Percentiles were defined within each category of partisan strength within each survey year.

  9. Appendix Fig. 6 reveals that issue alignment yields similar effects on affect within levels of attitude extremity.

  10. t tests confirmed no statistically significant difference in ingroup affect between the 25th and 75th percentiles within each category of partisan strength.

  11. The specific issues were defense spending, aid to blacks, jobs and living standards, health insurance, and service provision versus spending.

  12. Fixed-effects model results are also included in Appendix Table 8.

  13. Political knowledge was excluded from the 2008–2009 model because it was only measured in Wave 2. In addition, its inclusion reduced the number of panelists from 580 to 528. As a robustness check, I re-ran the first-difference models on outgroup and ingroup affect controlling for Wave 2 level of political knowledge; the coefficient on political knowledge was insignificant (β = −.001, p = .65 for outgroup affect; β = −.004, p = .13 for ingroup affect) and the coefficients on partisan strength and issue alignment were unchanged with its inclusion.

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Acknowledgments

I thank the editor and anonymous reviewers for their instructive recommendations. I also thank Matt Levendusky, Markus Prior, Kabir Khanna, Katie McCabe, Guarav Sood, and Sean Westwood for their feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Lori D. Bougher.

Appendix

Appendix

ANES Cross-Sectional Cumulative File and 1992–1994–1996 Panel

Defense Spending Scale

Some people believe that we should spend much less money for defense. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others feel that defense spending should be greatly increased. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. Where would you place yourself on this scale or haven’t you thought much about this? (7-POINT SCALE SHOWN TO R)

  1. 1.

    Govt should decrease defense spending.

  2. 7.

    Govt should increase defense spending.

By Law, When Should Abortion Be Allowed

There has been some discussion about abortion during recent years. Which one of the opinions on this page best agrees with your view? You can just tell me the number of the opinion you choose.

  1. 1.

    By law, abortion should never be permitted.

  2. 2.

    The law should permit abortion only in case of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger.

  3. 3.

    The law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman’s life, but only after the need for the abortion has been clearly established.

  4. 4.

    By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.

Aid to Blacks Scale

Some people feel that the government in Washington should make every effort to improve the social and economic position of blacks. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others feel that the government should not make any special effort to help blacks because they should help themselves. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2,3,4,5 or 6. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about it? (7-POINT SCALE SHOWN TO R)

  1. 1.

    Government should help minority groups/blacks.

  2. 7.

    Minority groups/blacks should help themselves.

Guaranteed Jobs and Income Scale

Some people feel that the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others think the government should just let each person get ahead on his/their own. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at pints 2,3,4,5 or 6. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this? (7-POINT SCALE SHOWN TO R)

  1. 1.

    Government see to job and good standard of living.

  2. 7.

    Government let each person get ahead on his own.

Government Health Insurance Scale

There is much concern about the rapid rise in medical and hospital costs. Some people feel there should be a government insurance plan which would cover all medical and hospital expenses for everyone. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others feel that all medical expenses should be paid by individuals, and through private insurance plans like Blue Cross. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And of course, some people have opinions somewhere in between at points 2,3,4,5 or 6. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this? (7-POINT SCALE SHOWN TO R)

  1. 1.

    Government insurance plan.

  2. 7.

    Private insurance plan.

Government Services/Spending Scale

Some people think the government should provide fewer services, even in areas such as health and education, in order to reduce spending. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Other people feel that it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2,3,4,5, or 6. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this? (7-POINT SCALE SHOWN TO R)

  1. 1.

    Government should provide many fewer services: reduce.

  2. 7.

    Government should provide many more services: increase spending a lot.

ANES 2008–2009 Panel

Same-Sex Marriage

Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning marriage between two people who are the same sex?

Taxation over $200,000

Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose raising federal income taxes for people who make more than $200,000 per year?

Prescription Drugs

Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose the U.S. government paying for all of the cost of prescription drugs for senior citizens who are living on very little income?

Medical Care

Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose the U.S. government paying for all necessary medical care for all Americans?

Terrorism

Imagine that the U.S. government suspects a person in the United States of being a terrorist. Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose the government being able to put this person in prison for months without ever bringing the person to court and charging him or her with a crime?

Wiretapping

Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose the U.S. government being required to get a court order before it can listen in on phone calls made by American citizens who are suspected of being terrorists?

Immigration

Citizens of other countries who have come to live in the United States without the permission of the U.S. government are called “illegal immigrants. Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose allowing illegal immigrants to work in the United States for up to 3 years, after which they would have to go back to their home country?

Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose the U.S. government making it possible for illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens?

Note: “Do you [favor/oppose] that (a great deal, moderately, or a little)?” followed all issue items.

See Figs. 5, 6 and Tables 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Coefficient on issue alignment over time for a outgroup affect and b ingroup affect

Fig. 6
figure 6

Predicted values of a outgroup affect and b ingroup affect by attitude extremity and issue alignment

Table 5 Summary statistics
Table 6 Correlation matrix
Table 7 Partisan identity as mediator
Table 8 Fixed effects models with ANES panel data

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Bougher, L.D. The Correlates of Discord: Identity, Issue Alignment, and Political Hostility in Polarized America. Polit Behav 39, 731–762 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-016-9377-1

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Keywords

  • Political polarization
  • Social identity theory
  • Belief congruence theory
  • Issue alignment