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Research Traces Effects of Partisanship on American Politics

IPR scholars explore phenomenon of growing polarization and partisanship

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Over the last four decades, districts have increasingly become politically similar: By the early 2000s, more than 80 percent of districts were sorted—that is, Democrats in Congress represented areas of the country that were consistently Democratic, and Republicans represented Republican areas.

Laurel and Olympia
IPR political scientist Laurel Harbridge (at right) poses with former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe during a conference on the ethics of political dysfunction held at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.

In the 114th Congress, sworn in on January 6, Republicans now hold their largest majority since 1928. Following the November election, House speaker John Boehner (R–OH) called for more bipartisan cooperation. Will senators, representatives, and even the president comply—or will Congress remain polarized, uncooperative, and unpopular? Congress’ actions serve to underscore the fact that partisanship (including bias in favor of one’s own party) and polarization have become deeply rooted in American politics. Several IPR political scientists have projects that investigate this phenomenon of growing polarization and partisanship in Congress, in the White House, and in the public sphere.

Partisanship in Congress

Is bipartisanship “dead?” In her forthcoming book of the same name, IPR political scientist Laurel Harbridge details several possible factors for the rise in political partisanship inside and outside the Beltway. She also enumerated these at the University of Missouri in St. Louis as part of a conference on the ethics of political dysfunction that included former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe.

Harbridge points out that in the 1970s a congressional lawmaker often represented a district that was not overwhelmingly dominated by his or her political party. But over the last four decades, districts have increasingly become politically similar: By the early 2000s, more than 80 percent of districts were sorted—that is, Democrats in Congress represented areas of the country that were consistently Democratic, and Republicans represented Republican areas. As a result, representatives now face less pressure to represent opposing partisans in their home district—and thus, a diminishing need to compromise with their political opponents to retain their seats. As a result, party leaders have pursued legislation that emphasizes partisan differences rather than bipartisan agreement.

While conventional wisdom and several national polls seem to suggest that the public generally disapproves of such partisan behavior, Harbridge’s research reveals that in some situations, the public actually encourages it. For example, people tend to prefer partisan conflict when it results in a legislative “win” for their own party (though when partisan conflict results in gridlock, approval of Congress declines).

Breaking the gridlock requires holding Congress accountable for governing, Harbridge explains.

“With so many incentives for partisan conflict at present, interest groups and the public must use their voices to demand greater attention to governance if they want to see more bipartisan legislation,” she said.

Partisanship in the White House

Daniel Galvin

While parties in Congress have clearly grown more partisan, is the same phenomenon taking place in the Oval Office? In several studies examining the last eleven presidencies, IPR political scientist Daniel Galvin finds that presidents have long sought to advance their parties’ interests, but that their partisanship has appeared in different forms in different eras.  

Beginning in the late 1970s, U.S. presidents began to deal with an increasingly polarized, partisan environment. Expectations grew that they would publicly engage in partisan behavior, such as vigorously campaigning for their party members or engaging in combative rhetoric with their political foes. In this context, presidents have been increasingly rewarded for acting in an overtly partisan fashion.

In earlier decades, when partisanship was more frowned upon, presidents still sought to advance their parties’ interests, Galvin explains. They just did it in a more covert fashion. Focusing on the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, Galvin shows that these presidents were not “less partisan” than the presidents of today—they simply knew that public demonstrations of partisanship could hamper their party’s (and their own) prospects for success.

Despite traditionally being considered less partisan than their successors, these three Republican presidents managed to assist the development of the Republican Party in the South through numerous covert actions during their terms. Galvin concludes that those who evaluate presidential partisanship should take into account how the “spirit of the times” affects their conduct.

Partisanship and the Public

James Druckman

Finally, how does partisanship affect the public? IPR political scientist James Druckman studies how polarization might affect public opinion. In a recent article, Druckman and his co-authors investigated whether more partisanship in government promoted “partisan-motivated reasoning” among citizens—that is, seeking out and selecting arguments that confirm one’s political beliefs, while dismissing those that run contrary to them.

Taking the examples of drilling and immigration policy, the researchers recorded study subjects’ opinions on them to see if they changed according to the level of polarization, as indicated by a prompt (e.g., “the partisan divide is stark as the parties are far apart” or “members of each party can be found on both sides of the issue”). Under less polarized circumstances, they find study participants made decisions based on the strength of arguments for or against the issue, no matter how their party had voted on it. Yet when conditions were more polarizing, they defaulted to their party’s position on the issue, regardless of how strong the arguments were. Moreover, in polarized environments, individuals were dramatically more confident in their own opinions—even though these opinions were based on unsubstantiated beliefs.

In another article, Druckman, IPR social policy professor Fay Lomax Cook, and Georgia State University’s Toby Bolsen surveyed 1,600 people about the 2007 Energy Act. Participants who received “directional” motivation were prompted to think about the party they identified with when choosing a position on the issue; those who received “accuracy” motivation were urged to consider all perspectives carefully before making their decision. Those who received directional motivation were more likely to endorse their party’s policies on the issue. People who received accuracy motivation did not engage in partisan-motivated reasoning, suggesting that a partisan-motivated perspective is not necessarily the most accurate one.

Lomax Cook
Fay Lomax Cook

Given the researchers’ findings, one might wonder if there is hope for bipartisan collaboration in Congress—or, since members of Congress are usually prompted by party leaders to think about their party when making decisions, if the political system has completely broken down.

“I don’t think it’s absolute in either one sense or the other,” Harbridge said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio on November 13. “But politics has changed in a way that even over the last decade, politicians were able to make sure that things got done, both on these recurring things like budgets and pressing issues—even back in the 1990s, with divided government between the Republicans and Clinton—in a way you don’t see today.”

Laurel Harbridge is an assistant professor of political science and an IPR fellow. Daniel Galvin is an associate professor of political science and an IPR fellow. James Druckman is Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science, IPR Associate Director, and chair of IPR's Program on Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy. Fay Lomax Cook is professor of human development and social policy and Assistant Director and Head of the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate, National Science Foundation.

Published: January 9, 2015.