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It’s Only You and Me and We Just Disagree: The Ideological Foundations of Affective Polarization

  • Alan I. Abramowitz

    Alan I. Abramowitz’s research interests are in American politics, political parties, elections, and voting behavior. His current research involves party realignment in the U.S. and its consequences for presidential and congressional elections. His most recent book is: The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation and the Rise of Donald Trump.

    Essay prepared for inclusion in special issue of The Forum on tribalism in American politics.

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From the journal The Forum

Abstract

Using the extensive battery of issue questions included in the 2020 ANES survey, I find that a single underlying liberal-conservative dimension largely explains the policy preferences of ordinary Americans across a wide range of issues including the size and scope of the welfare state, abortion, gay and transgender rights, race relations, immigration, gun control and climate change. I find that the distribution of preferences on this liberal-conservative issue scale is highly polarized with Democratic identifiers and leaners located overwhelmingly on the left, Republican identifiers and leaners located overwhelmingly on the right and little overlap between the two distributions. Finally, I show that ideological preferences strongly predict feelings toward the parties and presidential candidates. These findings indicate that polarization in the American public has a rational foundation. Hostility toward the opposing party reflects strong disagreement with the policies of the opposing party. As long as the parties remain on the opposite sides of almost all major issues, feelings of mistrust and animosity are unlikely to diminish regardless of Donald Trump’s future role in the Republican Party.


Corresponding author: Alan I. Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Department of Political Science, Emory University, Atlanta, USA, E-mail:

About the author

Alan I. Abramowitz

Alan I. Abramowitz’s research interests are in American politics, political parties, elections, and voting behavior. His current research involves party realignment in the U.S. and its consequences for presidential and congressional elections. His most recent book is: The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation and the Rise of Donald Trump.

Essay prepared for inclusion in special issue of The Forum on tribalism in American politics.

Appendix A: Questions included in issue scales and factor loadings of questions on scales.

Scale Question Factor loading
Social welfare scale Business/environment tradeoff 0.771
Government aid to blacks 0.780
Health insurance 0.796
Jobs/living standards 0.819
Spending and services −0.767
Gun control scale Ban on assault rifles 0.810
Mandatory buyback 0.816
Background checks 0.655
Stricter federal gun laws 0.797
Immigration scale Birthright citizenship 0.655
Children brought illegally 0.672
Path to citizenship −0.616
Illegal immigrants cause crime 0.715
Illegal immigrants take jobs 0.668
Immigration levels −0.687
Return to native country 0.803
Separating children 0.561
Policy toward unauthorized 0.680
Wall on Mexican border 0.801
Racial justice scale Police use of force −0.672
Police treat blacks/whites better 0.816
Protestors violent/peaceful −0.766
How to deal with unrest 0.840
Cultural issues scale Abortion −0.698
Same sex marriage 0.795
Same sex couple adoption 0.729
LGBT job discrimination 0.607
Businesses serve LGBT −0.694
Transgender bathroom use −0.745
Transgender military service 0.725
Climate change scale Regulate greenhouse gases −0.832
Importance of climate change 0.916
Climate change affects weather 0.918
  1. Source: 2020 American National Election Study.

Appendix B: Factor loadings of ideological identification and individual issue scales on liberal-conservative issues scale.

Question/Scale Factor loading
Ideological identification 0.825
Social welfare scale 0.890
Cultural issues scale 0.772
Racial justice scale 0.849
Gun control scale 0.722
Climate change scale −0.820
Immigration scale 0.837
  1. Source: 2020 American National Election Study.

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Published Online: 2021-11-29

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