When asked why they are supporting Donald Trump despite his manifest unfitness for office and his stated opposition to many of the positions they hold dear, many conventional Republicans can only bring themselves to answer in negative terms. If you don’t support Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan recently said, “that basically means you’re going to help elect Hillary Clinton.”
David Frum has described high levels of negative partisanship as one of the “broken guardrails” of American democracy. “Once you’ve convinced yourself that a president of the other party is the very worst possible thing that could befall America, then any nominee of your party—literally no matter who—becomes a lesser evil,” he wrote.
New economic research helps illuminate why this kind of political psychology came to be.
In a new paper, Matthew Gentzkow, Jesse Shapiro, and Matt Taddy (of Stanford, Brown and Microsoft) used computers to analyze the speech patterns of members of Congress from 1873 to 2009. The results were striking: Between the first Congressional term they examined and and the 1989-1990 term, there was only a modest difference between the language used by Republicans and Democrats. The computer could only guess the speaker’s party based on a one minute speech about 55 percent of the time. But “beginning with the congressional election of 1994, partisanship turned sharply upward, with the probability of guessing correctly based on a one-minute speech climbing to 83 percent by the 110th session.” The authors attribute the shift to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” campaign, the Democratic counter-mobilization, and the fragmentation of the media landscape.
According to measures used by other political scientists, America is experiencing a relatively high, but not unprecedented, episode of political polarization. Gentzkow and colleagues come to a different conclusion: In terms of the distinctiveness of speech patterns used by political elites—i.e., “undocumented workers” vs. “illegal immigrants,” “mass shooting” vs. “Islamist terrorism” and “marriage equality” vs. “gay marriage”—America is experiencing an intensifying episode of partisanship without any precedent in the period since the Civil War.
Why does this metric matter? It may be that just looking at voting or media consumption patterns is more meaningful in some contexts. But as the authors point out, “language is also one of the most fundamental cues of group identity, with differences in language or accent producing own-group preferences even in infants and young children.” America’s two parties are transforming into tribes, where showing solidarity for the in-group, and attacking the out-group, is more important than any ideological substance that might be churning beneath the surface. This is a nihilistic and toxic psychology, but it is part of the reason that so many Republicans have knelt before a man whom they know, deep down, holds their principles in contempt.