Asymmetric Identities: Identity-Driven Polarization and Evaluative Schemas

Politics does not need to be a fair fight; in fact, the two sides don’t even need to be having the same fight at all. This fact is well apparent in the study of elite polarization, which is nearly unanimously recognized as asymmetric in favor of Republicans. It is also beginning to be recognized in the study of mass polarization, but there is as yet no systematic, large-scale, investigation of asymmetry in mass polarization. In this paper, I show that mass polarization is, indeed, asymmetric and that asymmetry is a historical, identity-driven, process which is more than a matter of the strength or degree of polarization, but rather is tied to differences in how polarization works for different groups. Drawing on data from the American National Election Study, I show that, contradicting expectations from elite polarization, affective mass polarization appears to be asymmetric in favor of Democrats. However, deeper investigation shows that this asymmetry is a consequence of differences in Democratic and Republican identity which result from elite action in shaping the partisan cleavage. Namely, the conservative ideological content of Republican identity on the one hand, and a backfire effect, in which Republican partisans judge their party for not taking the Democratic threat seriously enough. These findings shift the focus from polarization as a measurement, towards understanding it as an evaluative schema grounded in politicized identities in complex ways.

Parties and Publics: Asymmetry and Mass Polarization

Despite nearly unanimous recognition that polarization at the elite level is asymmetric in favor of Republicans, there has as yet been no systematic investigation of asymmetry in mass polarization. This question has been largely ignored because much of the literature implicitly assumes that such asymmetry is impossible: polarization emerges out of opinion and identity cleavages within the polity, cleavages which are the product macro-social forces and not really amenable to elite influence. In this paper, drawing on political articulation theory, I argue that these cleavages are in fact constituted partly by elite action, and that we should therefore expect mass asymmetry to match elite asymmetry as the Republican party’s pursuit of a polarizing strategy bears fruit. Drawing on data from the American National Election Survey, however, I show that mass affective polarization is asymmetric in favor of Democrats. Through a series of regressions, I show that this asymmetry is connected specifically to Democratic party identification, appeared in the wake of asymmetric elite polarization in the late 1970s, and has grown over time in tandem with elite asymmetry. While in an unexpected direction, the finding of asymmetry nonetheless is strong evidence for the importance of elite action in constituting cleavages and for the importance of considering partisan differences in the study of polarization.

Draft available upon request.

Contentious Contention: The Connection Between Mass Movements and Mass Polarization

Political polarization has been an object of study in sociology and political science for decades, but thus far work to identify its causes has been primarily limited to the realm of institutional politics. The aim of this paper is to begin to remedy this oversight by looking at the connection between contentious collective action and polarization. In this paper, I work to demonstrate that contentious collective action events increase individual levels polarization, understood both as ideological identification and as affect towards an in-group and out-group. I am able to draw this connection between contentious collective action and individual polarization by linking protest event data drawn from the Dynamics of Collective Action Project and individual survey data from the American National Election Surveys. Connecting event level data to individuals is difficult, but I use an innovative quasi-experimental design, linking events to respondents based on interview dates. Based on this connection, I am able to model individual responses to event reports and demonstrate a link between events, especially disruptive or violent ones, and individual measures of polarization.

Draft available upon request.

Speaking Sociology: The Problem of Polysemy and the Solution of Metaphor

Doing good sociology is hard, this goes without saying. But the specifically semantic or communicative dimension of this difficulty is often ignored. We sometimes imagine sociology as a diverse discipline in which crosscutting perspectives and methods collide in strange and exciting conversations, but in reality an outsider would be forgiven for thinking that sociology only purports to be a single discipline, as these semantic difficulties too often create misunderstandings and see our conversations siloed off. Building on Abend’s (2008) recognition of the problem of polysemy in theory, I show that the problem is far more general, impacting every corner of the discipline. Previous solutions, while helpful, have been insufficient because they lack an adequate theoretical understanding of communication. However, the philosophical, linguistic, and cognitive study of metaphor can provide just such a foundation. Building on this foundation, I detail a practical solution, which I dub metaphorical reading, and I demonstrate its utility with a series of practical examples.

Draft available upon request.

© 2020 Steven Lauterwasser

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