Social Polarization and Partisan Prejudice in America: How Politics Became Our Identity

The way in which the American electorate has grown increasingly divided can be examined in terms of how social identity and partisanship are intricately aligned. In Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, Lilliana Mason argues that this division is not simply a disagreement over policy issues that has intensified partisan bias and levels of social polarization, but the act of sorting Republicans and Democrats into distinct social groups and identities. The manner in which partisans align with two or more interest groups, whether socially, demographically, or ideologically, influences one’s emotions and self-esteem resulting in social and political consequences: ingroup feelings of superiority and inferiority towards the outgroup leads partisans to take more extreme policy positions, decreasing incentives to cooperate and compromise and in turn, fuels social polarization.

While Mason’s research sheds light on how the alignment of social identities behind one’s party generates polarizing consequences, she also offers perspective and possible solutions for Americans to reach agreement and bridge disagreements that may mitigate and break through effects of social polarization through behavioural prescriptions such as the contact theory and social norms.

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However, given that interest groups, elite activists, and party leaders act on a certain set of incentives and have a sense of obligation towards group interests and objectives as well as their own, it is unlikely these structured influences have the ability to mitigate partisanship or lessen its adverse effects.

As American partisans sort themselves into increasingly socially isolated parties, an individual’s emotions and self-esteem driven by their identities increase political activism and influence their sense of civic responsibility.

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At the start of Uncivil Agreement, Mason describes how highly aligned social and partisan identities are less likely to engage with their partisan opponents than “cross-cutting” identities (Mason, pg. 23). This is evident as data drawn from American National Election Studies (ANES) in 2012 reports a significant difference in levels of political engagement and activism between sorted and unsorted partisans: among unsorted partisans, predicted levels of activism is 0.17 while among sorted partisans, predicted levels of activism is 0.27 (pg. 221). Here, even without the contribution of issue extremity, sorted partisans are 10 percent more likely to engage in political action than unsorted partisans. Similarly, according to YouGov 2011 sample data, strong partisans with cross-cutting identities and with little concern over policy outcomes report a “21 percent difference in their willingness to be socially involved with members of the two parties” whereas, strong partisans with aligned social identities with the party are “36 percentage points more willing” to spend time with ingroup partisans than members of the outgroup (pg. 149). The alignment of partisan and social identities resulting in a 15 point percentage difference in the social tolerance of ingroup and outgroup partisans can be explained: partisans whose social and ideological identities match their interest group or party are more likely to be more intolerant and biased towards their political opponents (pg. 149). Indeed, one might argue that the psychological effects of holding multiple social identities on levels of tolerance are driven by instrumental concerns rather than social identity, given that group members can be influenced by interest groups to take action that would benefit the individual from the success of their group’s objectives. However, in most cases, data evident from ANES and YouGov shows that individuals who engage in activism are only partially motivated and influenced by issue-based outcomes and that their engagement is not driven by their concern about civic issues, but based on how much hostility and intolerance ingroup members have towards the outgroup. Furthermore, intergroup emotions theory found that “strongly identified group members react with stronger emotions, particularly anger and enthusiasm, to group threats” (pg. 175). That being said, the more anger and hostility ingroup partisans feel towards the outgroup, the more partisans are compelled to act and take political action to defend their social identities and interest groups—it is not necessarily that highly sorted individuals hold more intense issue positions, but that “they act because it feels good to act” (pg. 250). Therefore, the manner in which Americans sort themselves into socially isolating parties and into different interest groups has psychological effects which drive prejudice and emotional volatility between outgroups and ingroups: the urge to act politically on one’s emotions and self-esteem is a result of emotion driven activism as opposed to civic driven activism.

While emotions of anger and enthusiasm can shape political thought and activism, they do not encourage rational thought towards making policy decisions which drive the ingroup members to contradict the outgroup, weaken the ability to find compromise on policies, and propel partisans to take more extreme positions. According to Kahn et. al, anger and hatred without “positive intergroup sentiments and moral sentiments of guilt or shame” may be a significant obstacle to find a middle ground that can “humanize adversaries and create the trust necessary for more comprehensive agreements” (pg. 83). Kahn et. al describes how anger and hatred are psychological responses that persuade partisans that “the party makes up a larger part of a person’s social world”: when ideological identity aligns with partisan identity, it is harder for partisans to understand and compromise with opponents as “reasonable people and easier to feel threatened and angered by them” (pg. 183). Similarly, the way in which partisans are driven by emotions of anger can be explained in terms of how ingroup members disregards the outgroup and find them inferior: “a person with two highly aligned social identities sees outsiders as very different from herself” (pg. 126). Mason describes how individuals with highly aligned identities “constrain” their ability to define their identity and that the “list of identities that define them will feel smaller,” and on the other hand, how individuals with unaligned social identities would perceive outside groups as “more approachable” (pg. 126). This is because individuals with ‘cross-cutting’ identities can be defined by a broad range of groups that would make individuals more tolerant towards other groups and as a result, find common ground on issues. Furthermore, sorted identities which constrain partisans from finding common ground with outgroups can also lead partisans to avoid finding compromise with other groups and take extreme positions. For instance, regarding abortion attitude identities and partisans who side with either pro-choice or pro-life, “the identity associated with the abortion issue is better at driving activism than is the extremity of that abortion opinion”—those most strongly connected to their interest group are predicted to participate in about 25 percent more political activism than those who only feel a weak connection to their interest group, which is about 10 percent (pg. 233). Here, Mason found that while a person’s position on abortion, influenced by interest groups, has some effect on activism, one’s social attachment to the pro-choice and pro-life decision drives more than twice as much political activism. That being said, “activists are driven to act not by the intensity of their beliefs but by the sense that they are supported by like-minded others” in their interest group, and this shared opinion is part of a social identity that fuels one’s emotions and self-esteem and encourages political activism (pg. 242). Thus, while the influence of interest groups aligning with parties has a moderate effect on extremity and importance of an issue to take certain positions policy attitudes, the psychological attachment to an interest group has a significant effect on policy attitudes and political activism: the lack of exposure to other ideas and constrainment in identities due to one’s psychological attachment to interest groups can diminish one’s ability to judge others fairly and to reach agreement with outgroups.

Although partisan, ideological, and social identities have become increasingly sorted, possible solutions and prescriptions such as contact theory and social norms may help Americans reach agreement in the future. Contact theory proposes that certain types of social contact such as “mass media or having a friend of a friend in the opposing group” can reduce prejudice between groups and break through hyper polarization (pg. 262). Research by Duckiitt (1992) found that the media can illustrate and present opposing partisans in more sympathetic ways and influence “intergroup distinctions, roles, and inequities” and said “norms that govern intergroup behaviour” (pg. 225). While the media can have the ability to portray opposing parties in a more positive light, American partisans are generally geographically sorted and live in different social areas and partisan television would gratify to the interests of partisans in specific areas and to popular biased demands of viewers. Additionally, while research has found that the “presence of intergroup friendships” can reduce anxiety and brings empathy, Kacooby-Senghor, Sinclair, and Smith (2015) stressed that individuals with the “most bias against outgroups are less likely to have direct contact with outgroup members” and in turn, would be “less likely to have friends with outgroup friends” (pgs. 262-263). Moreover, social norms which play a role in demonizing political opponents can be reformed for partisan prejudice affecting individual behaviour to be reduced (pg. 265). As social norms shape political and social behaviour, interest groups can influence group members to conform to the “prototype of the leader” by counteracting social norms with unprejudiced opinion or by encouraging party elites to discuss partisan opponents in an unprejudiced way. Indeed, one’s psychological attachment to their interest or party group and sense of support by like-minded individuals increases levels of political activism as “what group members think of what others are thinking may play a key role in influencing intergroup relations and perceptions” (pg. 265). However, elite activists and leaders tend to take more extreme positions than the public or other members of the group which influences group values and social norms, and if the elites themselves had any interest to reduce levels of partisan prejudice, it is still unlikely as interest group leaders and elite party leaders are “incentivized to maintain conflict and incivility” in order to draw political attention and votes (pg. 266). That being said, as interest groups have a certain set of incentives that would unlikely motivate elites to reduce levels of partisan prejudice given the social and political benefits, finding a middle group may only be possible for members of the ingroup to have cross-cutting identities and for positive and unbiased interaction to happen between those individuals of different groups. Therefore, unprejudiced portrayals of political opponents by the media, the ‘presence of intergroup friendships,’ and elite activists and leaders can influence partisans to search for compromise with outgroups and mitigate levels of partisanship, but only to a certain extent: as individuals and institutions are guided and motivated by a certain set of incentives which boost group membership, group objective, popularity, and political attention, individual would not likely be inclined to reduce levels of partisan prejudice.

Overall, social polarization can be explained in terms of how social and political identities line up together and how one’s psychological attachment to their multiple aligned identities drives intolerance, bias, and prejudice between social and political groups. Concerning the strength and alignment of the identities, the urge to act politically is emotionally driven based on how much prejudice and intolerance ingroup members have towards outgroup members rather than civically driven. Clearly, individuals who act on anger and enthusiasm diminish their ability to judge others fairly and to reach agreement with outgroups, and encourage partisans to take extreme positions. Furthermore, the solutions proposed by Mason to bridge disagreements and compromise are insufficient: whether it be mass media portraying opposing partisans in more sympathetic ways, encouraging intergroup friendships, or for elite activists and leaders to create new social norms to reduce bias and prejudice against political opponents, societal institutions and parties would be ineffective in reducing levels of partisan prejudice in this political and social context where there are a certain set of incentives that need to be followed, being civic obligations that need to be fulfilled towards the party and party discipline that needs to be enforced. However, combined efforts of institutions and individuals to reduce levels of partisan prejudice with cross-cutting identities may help mitigate social and political differences and encourage the reform of American institutions.


  1. Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil agreement. How politics became our identity. doi:10.7208/chicago/9780226524689.001.0001

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Social Polarization and Partisan Prejudice in America: How Politics Became Our Identity. (2021, Feb 12). Retrieved from

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