Partisan Dehumanization in American Politics

Abstract

Despite evidence that dehumanizing language and metaphors are found in political discourse, extant research has largely overlooked whether voters dehumanize their political opponents. Research on dehumanization has tended to focus on racial and ethnic divisions in societies, rather than political divisions. Understanding dehumanization in political contexts is important because the social psychology literature links dehumanization to a variety of negative outcomes, including moral disengagement, aggression, and even violence. In this manuscript, I discuss evidence of partisan dehumanization during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign and demonstrate how a focus on dehumanization can expose new relationships between moral psychology and partisan identity. Using data from two surveys conducted in October of 2016, I show that partisans dehumanize their political opponents in both subtle and blatant ways. When I investigate the correlates of dehumanization, I find that partisans who blatantly dehumanize members of the opposing party prefer greater social distance from their political opponents, which is indicative of reduced interpersonal tolerance. I also find that blatant dehumanization is associated with perceptions of greater moral distance between the parties, which is indicative of moral disengagement. These results suggest that dehumanization can improve our understanding of negative partisanship and political polarization.

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Change history

  • 30 November 2019

    In the online version of the article, the y-axis labels for Figure 1 are incorrect. The Figure 1a y-axis reads “Mechanistic Traits”.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Partisans did not uniformly identify as strong Democrats or Republicans—15% of the MTURK sample identified as a strong Democrat (n = 91) and 5% as a strong Republican (n = 31). In the student sample 10% of participants identified as a strong Democrat (n = 39) and 5% as a strong Republican (n = 21).

  2. 2.

    Additional analysis showed that the true independents, those that did not lean toward one party of the other, did not engage in partisan dehumanization. In addition, no relationship was observed between strength of identification with other Independents and scores on the dehumanization measures (see the Online Appendix). These findings must be interpreted cautiously, given the nature of the samples and the small numbers of true Independent identifiers they contain.

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Cassese, E.C. Partisan Dehumanization in American Politics. Polit Behav (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09545-w

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Keywords

  • Dehumanization
  • Partisanship
  • Social identity
  • Political polarization
  • Moral disengagement