The Hidden Brain

Partisanship Is the New Racism

Democrats and Republicans may sit together for Obama’s speech, but partisanship won’t budge.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress are going to sit together —all chummy and united—during President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday. I’m betting that this new post-partisan era will be a lot like the post-racial America that Obama supposedly ushered in.

Partisanship is the new racism. We love to criticize it, and we love to claim we’ve transcended it. We recognize it in our enemies but not in ourselves. We use it to discriminate against others. And increasingly, we find sophisticated ways to mask it in a veneer of open-mindedness.

New psychological research and insights from political science suggest parallels between partisanship and racism. Both seem to arise from aspects of social identity that are immutable or slow to change. Both are publicly decried and privately practiced. Both are increasingly employed in ways that allow practitioners to deny that they are doing what they are doing. 

Let’s take these assertions one by one. Most of us don’t think of partisanship as a matter of social identity. We think that party loyalties stem from our views about government, abortion, guns, and foreign policy. But if you look at those issues, there is no logical reason why people who are against abortion rights should also support gun rights, as many conservatives do. There is no logical reason why those who support unions shouldn’t also support a militaristic foreign policy—yet liberals tend to do one but not the other. The issues that bind liberals together and the ones that tie conservatives together are all over the place. Most people see the incoherence in their opponents’ views: Liberals, for example, mock conservatives for opposing abortion on the grounds that it takes human life while simultaneously supporting the death penalty. Conservatives shake their heads at liberals who pour onto the streets for antiwar protests, but only when the commander in chief is a Republican.

In recent years, a number of political scientists have argued that our party loyalties drive our views about issues, not the other way around. But if our views don’t make us Democrats or Republicans, what does? Consider this thought experiment: I have two neighbors, Jack and Jill. Jill is an African-American woman and a yoga instructor. Jack is a white man and an evangelical Christian. I’ve told you nothing about Jack and Jill’s views about abortion, government, guns, taxes, or foreign policy. Yet most of us would have no trouble guessing that Jill is a Democrat and Jack is a Republican. How do we know this? Because social identity—race, gender, religious affiliation, geographical location—play an outsize (and largely hidden) role in determining our partisan affiliations.

When partisanship is seen as a form of social identity—I’m a Democrat because people like me are Democrats, or I’m a Republican because people like me are Republicans—we can understand why so many blue-collar Kansans are Republicans and why so many Silicon Valley billionaires are Democrats, even though each group’s rational interests might be better served by the other party. Partisanship as social identity helps explain why, if you’re a black man in America, it’s really, really difficult to be a Republican. Same goes if you are a white, male, evangelical Christian in rural Texas who supports Barack Obama. Social identities are not deterministic—there will always be some black Republicans and some born-again Christians who are liberals—but most of us stick with our social tribes. Any liberal who supported George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq would have been ostracized by his friends. A conservative who feels Barack Obama is a cool president will be made to feel like a traitor at church.

Here’s the second way in which partisanship has become the new racism: We use it to discriminate against those who do not belong to our group.

In a recent experiment, researchers assigned Democrats and Republicans to play the role of a college admissions director and asked them to evaluate the applications of two students based on their SAT scores, GPA scores, and recommendation letters. Some applicants were described as enthusiastic members of the Young Democrats or Young Republicans and were said to have been campaign volunteers for Democratic or Republican presidential candidates.

When evaluators were not told about the applicants’ partisan affiliations, 79 percent selected the candidate with the strongest scores. When the evaluators were told about the applicants’ partisan affiliations—and the partisan affiliation of the candidate with the strongest score conflicted with the partisan loyalty of the evaluator—only 44 percent of evaluators chose the candidate with the strongest score.

The bias was evident among both Democratic and Republican evaluators. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology and authored by Geoffrey D. Munro, Terell P. Lasane, and Scott P. Leary.

Partisanship is also like racism in a third way: Studies have shown that racism is so socially proscribed that people exhibit it nowadays only when they can plausibly deny—to themselves and to others—that they are biased. One meta-analysis of studies, for example, found that “discrimination against blacks was more likely to occur when potential helpers had more opportunities to rationalize decisions not to help” by invoking “justifiable explanations having nothing to do with race.”

Munro, Lasane, and Leary found the same pattern of behavior in partisanship. The partisan college evaluators were willing to acknowledge that applicants they chose who shared their political loyalties had lower test scores—an objective fact—but they selected the candidates anyway by inflating the importance of the recommendation letters that came with applications. Accepting candidates merely on the basis of low test scores would have shown the evaluators were biased. Accepting candidates on the basis of recommendation letters—and arguing the letters were more important than scores—allowed the evaluators to plausibly deny that they were biased.

If partisanship and racism are both tied to social identity, then a post-partisan America is about as likely as a post-racial America. Our views on issues may change, but our identities remain stable over decades. Democrats and Republicans sitting together in Congress will no sooner put an end to partisanship than gay men, black women, and Alabama hunters will give up their tribes.