Competing Motives in a Polarized Electorate: Political Responsiveness, Identity Defensiveness, and the Rise of Partisan Antipathy


According to the polarization literature, the electorate has sorted into more ideologically homogenous partisan groups, and this increase in cohesion within parties has fueled animosity between partisans. But, are mass parties really as cohesive as we think? If not, what else might be helping to drive up antipathy between partisans? Building on the dual motivations theory of party identification (Groenendyk,), I theorize that elite polarization has amplified partisans' often competing motivations: People want to be good citizens but also good partisans. Consistent with this theory, American National Election Studies (ANES) data suggest that partisans are not just evaluating the other party more negatively, but they are also reporting less positive evaluations of, and greater ambivalence toward, their own party. This suggests substantive responsiveness. On the other hand, they appear to be rationalizing continued identification with their party in the face of this ambivalence by reporting even more negative feelings toward the other party. In other words, they seem to be engaging in the “lesser of two evils” identity defense (Groenendyk,). Overall, these results suggest that parties need not be internally cohesive to be divided against one another, making partisan dynamics more fluid than many accounts imply.

Publication Title

Political Psychology