The affective, identity based, and often negative nature of partisan polarization in the United States has been a subject of much scholarly attention. Applying insights from recent work in social psychology, we employ three novel large-N, broadly representative online surveys, fielded over the course of 4 years, across two presidential administrations, to examine the extent to which this brand of polarization features a willingness to apply dehumanizing metaphors to out-partisans. We begin by looking at two different measures of dehumanization (one subtle and one more direct). This uncovers striking, consistent observational evidence that many partisans dehumanize members of the opposing party. We examine the relationship between dehumanization and other key partisan intensity measures, finding that it is most closely related to extreme affective polarization. We also show that dehumanization “predicts” partisan motivated reasoning and is correlated with respondent worldview. Finally, we present a survey experiment offering causal leverage to examine openness to dehumanization in the processing of new information about misdeeds by in- and out-partisans. Participants were exposed to identical information about a melee at a gathering, with the partisanship of those involved randomly assigned. We find pronounced willingness by both Democrats and Republicans to dehumanize members of the out-party. These findings shed considerable light on the nature and depth of modern partisan polarization.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
While electoral politics in the United States establishes political winners and losers, neither party has recently held a consistent, unassailable grip on all branches and levels of government. Both parties are well-funded and while one party may lose political power temporarily, each tends to ascend to power on a regular basis. Political parties exist not in a static hierarchy but a dynamic system where political power shifts back and forth between them.
YouGov uses block randomization to maximize representativeness. For the SSI sample, we imposed population based quotas for joint distributions of race and education to maximize broad representativeness. This sample is reasonably representative of the national population, although it contains comparatively more women and fewer middle-aged people than the national population. The distributions of demographic variables can be found in the Appendix.
We also plot the relationship between blatant dehumanization and each individual party feeling thermometer. It does not appear that the result is driven by inparty or outparty affect alone - both feeling thermometers have similar relationships with blatant dehumanization. See Fig. VI in the Online Appendix.
In keeping with the suggestions of Miratrix et al. (2018) the analyses presented here do not use sampling weights. Distributions of sample demographics including age, race, gender, household income, and partisanship can be found in the Appendix.
We also included an ambiguous condition that did not specify whether the perpetrator group was composed of Republicans or Democrats. For interpretational clarity, we exclude this condition from the focal analysis. Based on recent work, we suspect that although political party was not explicitly mentioned in this ambiguous condition, many participants might infer that their rival political party committed the misdeed.
It is possible that some respondents may make assumptions/inferences regarding the race of the partisans involved, specifically that Democrats are more likely non-white. In fact, Ahler and Sood (2018) show that voters overestimate the percentage of Democrats who are black. Having said that, we made a conscious choice in the design of this experiment to not guide respondents to imagine white Democrats or Republicans, either through the text or image. This is because we view racial associations as part of the admittedly bundled party label treatments.
Abramowitz, A., & Saunders, K. (2005). Why can’t we all just get along? The reality of a polarized America. The Forum, 3(2), 1.
Abramowitz, A., & Saunders, K. (2006). Exploring the bases of partisanship in the American electorate: Social identity vs. ideology. Political Research Quarterly, 59(2), 175.
Abramowitz, A. I., & Webster, S. (2016). The rise of negative partisanship and the nationalization of us elections in the 21st century. Electoral Studies, 41, 12–22.
Ahler, D. J. (2014). Self-fulfilling misperceptions of public polarization. The Journal of Politics, 76(3), 607–620.
Ahler, D. J., & Sood, G. (2018). The parties in our heads: Misperceptions about party composition and their consequences. The Journal of Politics, 80(3), 964–981.
Arceneaux, K., Johnson, M., & Murphy, C. (2012). Polarized political communication, oppositional media hostility, and selective exposure. Journal of Politics, 74(1), 174–186.
Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3(3), 193–209.
Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality, 9(4), 253–269.
Bankert, A., Huddy, L., & Rosema, M. (2017). Measuring partisanship as a social identity in multi-party systems. Political Behavior, 39(1), 103–132.
Bartels, L. M. (2002). Beyond the running tally: Partisan bias in political perceptions. Political Behavior, 24(2), 117–150.
Bastian, B., Denson, T. F., & Haslam, N. (2013). The roles of dehumanization and moral outrage in retributive justice. PLoS ONE, 8(4), e61842.
Bishop, B. (2009). The big sort: Why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart. Boston: Mariner Books.
Bolsen, T., Druckman, J. N., & Cook, F. L. (2014). The influence of partisan motivated reasoning on public opinion. Political Behavior, 36(2), 235–262.
Brader, T., & Tucker, J. A. (2008). Pathways to partisanship: Evidence from Russia. Post-Soviet Affairs, 24(3), 263–300.
Bruneau, E., Jacoby, N., Kteily, N., & Saxe, R. (2018). Denying humanity: The distinct neural correlates of blatant dehumanization. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(7), 1078–1093.
Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). The American voter. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
Cassese, E. C. (2018). Monster metaphors in media coverage of the 2016 U.S. presidential contest. Politics, Groups, and Identities, 6(4), 825–837.
Cassese, E. C. (2019). Partisan dehumanization in American politics. Political Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09545-w.
Crawford, J. T., Modria, S. A., & Motyl, M. (2013). Bleeding-heart liberals and hard-hearted conservatives: Subtle political dehumanization through differential attributions of human nature and human uniqueness traits. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 1(1), 86–104.
Druckman, J., Gubitz, S., Levendusky, M., & Lloyd, A. (2019). How incivility on partisan media (de-)polarizes the electorate. The Journal of Politics, 81(1), 291–295.
Druckman, J. N., & Bolsen, T. (2011). Framing, motivated reasoning, and opinions about emergent technologies. Journal of Communication, 61(4), 659–688.
Duran, N. D., Nicholson, S. P., & Dale, R. (2017). The hidden appeal and aversion to political conspiracies as revealed in the response dynamics of partisans. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 73, 268–278.
Esses, V. M., Medianu, S., & Lawson, A. S. (2013). Uncertainty, threat, and the role of the media in promoting the dehumanization of immigrants and refugees. Journal of Social Issues, 69(3), 518–536.
Fasoli, F., Paladino, M. P., Carnaghi, A., Jetten, J., Bastian, B., & Bain, P. G. (2016). Not “just words”: Exposure to homophobic epithets leads to dehumanizing and physical distancing from gay men. European Journal of Social Psychology, 46(2), 237–248.
Fernandez-Vazquez, P., & Theodoridis, A. G. (2019). Believe it or not? Partisanship, preferences, and the credibility of campaign promises. Journal of Experimental Political Science. https://doi.org/10.1017/XPS.2019.16
Green, D., Palmquist, P. B., & Schickler, P. E. (2004). Partisan hearts and minds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Greene, S. (1999). Understanding party identification: A social identity approach. Political Psychology, 20(2), 393–403.
Greene, S. (2000). The psychological sources of partisan-leaning independence. American Politics Quarterly, 28(4), 511–537.
Greene, S. (2004). Social identity theory and party identification. Social Science Quarterly, 85(1), 136–153.
Haslam, N. (2006). Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(3), 252–264.
Haslam, N., & Loughnan, S. (2014). Dehumanization and infrahumanization. Annual Review of Psychology, 65(1), 399–423.
Henderson, J. A., & Theodoridis, A. G. (2017). Seeing spots: Partisanship, negativity and the conditional receipt of campaign advertisements. Political Behavior, 40(4), 965–987.
Hetherington, M. J. (2001). Resurgent mass partisanship: The role of elite polarization. American Political Science Review, 95(3), 619–631.
Hetherington, M. J., & Rudolph, T. J. (2015). Why Washington won’t work: Polarization, political trust, and the governing crisis. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Hetherington, M. J., & Weiler, J. D. (2009). Authoritarianism and polarization in American politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hetherington, M. J., & Weiler, J. D. (2018). Prius or pickup? How the answers to four simple questions explain America’s great divide. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Huber, G. A., & Malhotra, N. (2017). Political homophily in social relationships: Evidence from online dating behavior. The Journal of Politics, 79(1), 269–283.
Huber, J. D., Kernell, G., & Leoni, E. L. (2005). Institutional context, cognitive resources and party attachments across democracies. Political Analysis, 13(4), 365–386.
Huddy, L., Mason, L., & Aarøe, L. (2015). Expressive partisanship: Campaign involvement, political emotion, and partisan identity. American Political Science Review, 109(1), 1–17.
Ishiyama, J., & Fox, K. (2006). What affects the strength of partisan identity in Sub-Saharan Africa? Politics & Policy, 34(4), 748–773.
Iyengar, S., Sood, G., & Lelkes, Y. (2012). Affect, not ideology: A social identity perspective on polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly, 76(3), 405–431.
Iyengar, S., & Westwood, S. J. (2015). Fear and loathing across party lines: New evidence on group polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59(3), 690–707.
Jerit, J., & Barabas, J. (2012). Partisan perceptual bias and the information environment. The Journal of Politics, 74(3), 672–684.
Kelman, H. G. (1973). Violence without moral restraint: Reflections on the dehumanization of victims and victimizers. Journal of Social Issues, 29(4), 25–61.
Klar, S. (2013). The influence of competing identity primes on political preferences. The Journal of Politics, 75(4), 1108–1124.
Klar, S. (2014). Partisanship in a social setting. American Journal of Political Science, 58(3), 687–704.
Klar, S., Krupnikov, Y., & Ryan, J. B. (2018). Affective polarization or partisan disdain? Untangling a dislike for the opposing party from a dislike of partisanship. Public Opinion Quarterly, 83(2), 379–390.
Kteily, N., & Bruneau, E. (2017). Backlash: The politics and real-world consequences of minority group dehumanization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(1), 87–104.
Kteily, N., Bruneau, E., Waytz, A., & Cotterill, S. (2015). The ascent of man: Theoretical and empirical evidence for blatant dehumanization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(5), 901–931.
Leidner, B., Castano, E., & Ginges, J. (2013). Dehumanization, retributive and restorative justice, and aggressive versus diplomatic intergroup conflict resolution strategies. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(2), 181–192.
Lelkes, Y., Sood, G., & Iyengar, S. (2015). The hostile audience: The effect of access to broadband internet on partisan affect. American Journal of Political Science, 61(1), 5–20.
Lenz, G. S. (2012). Follow the leader? How voters respond to politicians’ policies and performance. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Levendusky, M. (2009). The partisan sort: How liberals became Democrats and conservatives became Republicans. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Levendusky, M. (2013). How partisan media polarize America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Leyens, J.-P., Paladino, P. M., Rodriguez-Torres, R., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez-Perez, A., et al. (2000). The emotional side of prejudice: The attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4(2), 186–197.
Maoz, I., & McCauley, C. (2008). Threat, dehumanization, and support for retaliatory aggressive policies in asymmetric conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 52(1), 93–116.
Martinez, A. G. (2014). When “they” become “I”: Ascribing humanity to mental illness influences treatment-seeking for mental/behavioral health conditions. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(2), 187–206.
Martinez, A. G., Piff, P. K., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Hinshaw, S. P. (2011). The power of a label: Mental illness diagnoses, ascribed humanity, and social rejection. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 30(1), 1–23.
Mason, L. (2016). A cross-cutting calm: How social sorting drives affective polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly, 80(1), 351–377.
Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil agreement: How politics became our identity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Mason, L., & Wronski, J. (2018). One tribe to bind them all: How our social group attachments strengthen partisanship. Political Psychology, 39(S1), 257–277.
McConnell, C., Malhotra, N., Margalit, Y., & Levendusky, M. (2018). The economic consequences of partisanship in a polarized era. American Journal of Political Science, 62(1), 5–18.
McLaughlin, B., McLeod, D. M., Davis, C., Perryman, M., & Mun, K. (2017). Elite cues, news coverage, and partisan support for compromise. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 94(3), 862–882.
Mekawi, Y., Bresin, K., & Hunter, C. D. (2016). White fear, dehumanization, and low empathy: Lethal combinations for shooting biases. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 22(3), 322–332.
Michelitch, K., & Utych, S. (2018). Electoral cycle fluctuations in partisanship: Global evidence from eighty-six countries. The Journal of Politics, 80(2), 412–427.
Miller, A. H., Gurin, P., Gurin, G., & Malanchuk, O. (1981). Group consciousness and political participation. American Journal of Political Science, 25(3), 494–511.
Miratrix, L. W., Sekhon, J. S., Theodoridis, A. G., & Campos, L. F. (2018). Worth weighting? How to think about and use weights in survey experiments. Political Analysis, 26(3), 275–291.
Nicholson, S. P. (2012). Polarizing cues. American Journal of Political Science, 56(1), 52–66.
Nicholson, S. P., Coe, C. M., Emory, J., & Song, A. V. (2016). The politics of beauty: The effects of partisan bias on physical attractiveness. Political Behavior, 38(4), 883–898.
Pacilli, M. G., Roccato, M., Pagliaro, S., & Russo, S. (2016). From political opponents to enemies? The role of perceived moral distance in the animalistic dehumanization of the political outgroup. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 19(3), 360–373.
Pettigrew, T. F. (1979). The ultimate attribution error: Extending Allport’s cognitive analysis of prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5(4), 461–476.
Simon, B., & Mummendey, A. (1990). Perceptions of relative group size and group homogeneity: We are the majority and they are all the same. European Journal of Social Psychology, 20(4), 351–356.
Stenner, K. (2005). The authoritarian dynamic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stevenson, M. C., Malik, S. E., Totton, R. R., & Reeves, R. D. (2015). Disgust sensitivity predicts punitive treatment of juvenile sex offenders: The role of empathy, dehumanization, and fear. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 15(1), 177–197.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior: Psychology of intergroup relations, red. S. Worchel, LW Austin. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. Psychology of Intergroup Relations, 5, 7–24.
Tam, T., Hewstone, M., Cairns, E., Tausch, N., Maio, G., & Kenworthy, J. (2007). The impact of intergroup emotions on forgiveness in Northern Ireland. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 10(1), 119–136.
Theodoridis, A. G. (2013). Implicit political identity. PS: Political Science & Politics, 46(03), 545–549.
Theodoridis, A. G. (2017). Me, myself, and (I), (D), or (R)? Partisanship and political cognition through the lens of implicit identity. The Journal of Politics, 79(4), 1253–1267.
Trounson, J. S., Critchley, C., & Pfeifer, J. E. (2015). Australian attitudes toward asylum seekers: Roles of dehumanization and social dominance theory. Social Behavior and Personality, 43(10), 1641–1655.
Utych, S. M. (2017). How dehumanization influences attitudes toward immigrants. Political Research Quarterly, 71(2), 440–452.
Vaes, J., Paladino, M.-P., & Leyens, J.-P. (2002). The lost e-mail: Prosocial reactions induced by uniquely human emotions. British Journal of Social Psychology, 41(4), 521–534.
Vezzali, L., Capozza, D., Stathi, S., & Giovannini, D. (2012). Increasing outgroup trust, reducing infrahumanization, and enhancing future contact intentions via imagined intergroup contact. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 437–440.
Waytz, A., & Epley, N. (2012). Social connection enables dehumanization. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 70–76.
We thank Doug Ahler, Steve Ansolabehere, Vin Arceneaux, Larry Bartels, Henry Brady, Erin Cassese, Jack Citrin, Maggie Deichert, Stephen Goggin, John Henderson, Nathan Kalmoe, Cindy Kam, David Karol, Lily Mason, Steve Nicholson, David Nickerson, Eric Schickler, Gaurav Sood, and Rob Van Houweling for helpful feedback. This research was made possible by generous funding from the University of California, Merced, and the Vanderbilt University Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, and was supported by National Science Foundation Awards #1559125 and #1756447. We also thank the Vanderbilt Research on Individuals, Politics and Society Lab. Replication and online supplementary materials are available here: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/FY7SVG.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
Martherus, J.L., Martinez, A.G., Piff, P.K. et al. Party Animals? Extreme Partisan Polarization and Dehumanization. Polit Behav (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09559-4
- Party identity
- Affective polarization