Last Spring, the political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster released a paper arguing that, since the 1950s, “a growing number of Americans have been voting against the opposing party rather than for their own party.” They labeled this phenomenon “negative partisanship.” (We wonder if a better term isn’t nihilistic partisanship, to the extent that contemporary partisans stand only for destroying their opponents and nothing else).
The Pew Research Center’s latest survey on partisan attitudes in the United States indicates that the trend Abramowitz and Webster identified last year is proceeding apace. Americans in 2016 loathe their political opponents more than any other time on record:
Partisans’ views of the opposing party are now more negative than at any point in nearly a quarter of a century.
For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger.
Moreover, as the chart below indicates, more people (Democrats and Republicans) say that their partisan identity is formed by opposition to the opposing party’s policies than support for their own party’s policies.
This transformation in the way partisan identities are formed and maintained has impacted our politics in countless ways. Here are three observations that seem particularly relevant:
First, as Abramowitz and Webster argued in their original paper, and as Thomas Edsall elaborated here, negative partisanship tilts the deck in favor of a GOP Congress. Hatred of the opposing party encourages straight-ticket voting, which has risen steadily in the last two decades. The vast majority of people who vote for a Republican for President also vote for a Republican for Congress, and vice versa. In our constitutional structure, this gives the GOP an advantage when it comes to Congressional races, because its voters are more “efficiently distributed”—that is, they are geographically spread out across Congressional districts. Meanwhile, Democratic voters are clustered in deep-blue urban areas, where their votes are “wasted” on Democratic Congressional candidates who rack up huge majorities. This is one of the reasons the GOP was able to hold the House in 2012 despite the fact that Democratic House candidates won more votes overall. If negative partisanship continues to intensify, this GOP advantage will persist through 2016 and beyond.
Second, nihilistic opposition to the opposing party does not seem like a particularly effective mechanism for protecting the integrity of your own party. Lacking a compelling moral or policy vision of its own, and relying almost exclusively on what Walter Russell Mead has called “the power of ‘no’,” the GOP found itself vulnerable to a hostile takeover by Donald Trump—himself an ideology-free populist who has never shown any interest in traditional conservatism. The Democratic Party has thus far been able to fend off its own insurgencies, in part because of President Obama’s popularity and in part because of the institutional reach of the Clinton machine. But the Democrats are also suffering from a severe drought of serious ideas, and increasingly reliant on rejection and fear-mongering in order to win votes. It remains to be seen whether the party’s establishment firewall will survive the age of nihilistic partisanship, or whether it will go the way of the GOP’s once the Clintons and Obamas exit stage right.
Third, the story told by the Pew data is as much about social segregation as it is about politics. As Pew notes, “in both parties, those who have few or no friends in the other party are more likely to have ‘very cold’ feelings about the people in that party.” Many communities and institutions have become extraordinarily politically monolithic. The academic left’s long-running hostility toward moderate and conservative politics has intensified. People in upper-middle class communities are more contemptuous of the white working class than they once were. Misguided land-use policies hinder residential integration along the lines of race and income. And fewer people participate in public activities, like churchgoing, where they might be forced to encounter people with different views.
Generating a more constructive politics will require more creative policy thinking by the political classes, as well as a hefty dose of institutional reform. But perhaps more importantly, it will require all of us to recommit to the kinds of diverse personal and social relationships that exist outside of the political sphere.