Cass Sunstein: We’ve Entered the Age of Partyism—It Might Get Worse Than Racism

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By Cass Sunstein | 4:00 am, May 13, 2016

Welcome to the age of partyism. In some ways, it’s now worse than racism.

There are strong signs that in the coming election, it’s going to increase substantially. Negative campaigning works, and both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have strong incentives to do a ton of it — and thus to intensify partyism.

A definition: Partyism exists when people have immediate, visceral negative reactions to members of the opposing political party. The reactions operate a lot like racism, in the sense that they affect decisions in multiple areas of life, including friendship, dating, marriage, hiring, and contracting.

Of course you might think that it’s rational to dislike people whose views you abhor, even though it’s irrational to dislike people because of their skin color. But what we’re now seeing goes well beyond rationality.

In 1960, 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats said that they would feel “displeased” if their son or daughter married outside their political party. By 2010, those numbers skyrocketed: to 49% and 33%, respectively. We’re probably not yet at the point where Republicans would be more upset if their child married a Democrat than someone of the same sex — but we are heading in that direction.

Republicans have been found to like Democrats less than they like people on welfare or gays and lesbians. Democrats dislike Republicans more than they dislike big business.

One of the most influential measures of prejudice is the implicit-association test, which is simple to take. To simplify the story, the test is a way of finding out whether people have immediately positive or immediately negative reactions to certain characteristics, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation.

To test for partyism, Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood, political scientists at Stanford University, conducted a large-scale implicit association test with 2,000 adults. Like many researchers, they find a significant racial bias — but they also find that political bias is much larger.

To find out whether that bias predicts behavior, Iyengar and Westwood undertook a follow-up study. They asked more than 1,000 people to look at the resumes of several high-school seniors and say which ones should be awarded a scholarship. Some of the resumes contained racial cues (“president of the African American Student Association”) while others had political ones (“president of the Young Republicans”).

Race did turn out to matter: African-American participants preferred the African-American candidates 73% to 27%. Whites showed a modest preference for African-American candidates, as well, though by a significantly smaller margin.

But partisanship made a much bigger difference. Both Democrats and Republicans selected their in-party candidate about 80% of the time.

Even when a candidate from the opposing party clearly had better credentials, most people chose the candidate from their own party. With respect to race, in contrast, merit prevailed.

There’s a big question in that background: Why has partyism been exploding?

There are, I think, two primary reasons. The first, strongly supported by the evidence, involves modern campaigning: During periods of strong negative political advertising, there’s an increase in partyism.

It follows that if Trump tries to paint Clinton and other Democrats as corrupt, as losers, as crazy, or as unable and unwilling to defend the United States, partyism is going to spike. The same thing will happen if Clinton tries to portray Trump and other Republicans as captives of business interests who don’t care a bit about ordinary Americans.

Partyism is also fueled by the increasingly fragmented media environment and by social media. There’s a ton of self-sorting out there. Decades of work in social science show that when people are able to create echo chambers of their own design, they tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before.

And when the echo chambers treat members of the opposing party as enemies rather than as fellow citizens, then it’s only natural to think: I really wouldn’t one of them in my home — and my kid had better not marry one.

All this is terrible for democratic debate, but it’s even worse for actual governance. After all the votes are counted, how easy is it going to be run the country in a time when partyism has run amuck? That’s a question that both Democrats and Republicans should now be asking, even before the most serious campaigning gets started.


Cass R. Sunstein, the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, is the Robert Walmsley university professor at Harvard Law School. His most recent book is The World According to Star Wars. (Parts of this essay draw on an earlier one, available here.)