(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

(Note: The National Hockey League includes teams from the United States and Canada.  Canadian teams from the province of Quebec and their home facilities are known by the French versions of their name. The Buffalo Sabres, in their hometown abutting the US-Canadian border, also follow suit.)

The origin of the term partisanship provides insight into the way that this factor functions in our political system.  Despite being a political scientist studying political behavior for a couple of decades and a student of French since middle school, it was not until February 2, 2013 that I grasped the meaning of this term on a whole new level.  A hockey fan since my youth, I eagerly tuned in that day to watch the Buffalo Sabres play the Montreal Canadiens, a game that took place just a couple of weeks after the end of a months-long lockout that resulted in the cancellation of games until late January. As the teams faced off in the Bell Centre, I noticed additional wording at center ice: “Merci à nos partisans!” – “Thank you to our fans!” Partisan – fan, devotee, follower – certainly captures the essence of individuals following political groups and philosophies.  Ardent supporters can become quite heated on behalf of their teams, driven more by emotion and loyalty of shared identity, rather than critical analysis.

In the field of political science, we most often use party identification to measure partisanship within the public.  Party identification (referred to as PID), the extent to which individuals feel closer to one of the political parties, reflects a primarily affective (emotional) view.  As shown in this overview from the American National Elections Studies project, one of the most extended and reputable series examining political behavior in the United States, this characteristic reflects responses as to which party respondents think of themselves as “closer” (click “Notes” tab for question-wording).  Over time, PID has shifted among three primary groups: Democrats, Independents and Republicans, with Independents retaining a strong presence over time. Despite extensive analyses of alternate approaches to measuring PID, this general approach remains the most effective measure in our two-party system, based on its ability to more accurately capture the pulse of political behavior.  For the general public, partisanship has no doubt had some negative impacts on the political system, but it can also be harnessed constructively.

I find it helpful to consider partisan identity as a “lens” that not only impacts voting decisions but also shapes other political beliefs and attitudes.  Many models, including the pivotal Michigan voting model of the “funnel of causality” include PID as a factor with both direct and indirect effects.  Sixty years after the introduction of the model, the Change and Continuity series, published after each national election with in-depth analysis, reveals the persistent and multiple influences of PID on voting.  Not only are partisans more likely to vote for candidates running under that party label, but PID shapes evaluations of candidates, issues and events that also influence voting.  Part of the reason for this outcome is that party identification serves as a heuristic – or shortcut – in processing information.  Unfortunately, shortcuts do not allow for effective evaluation of complex situations, creating “teams” of political opponents that combat one another rather than consider options outside of their partisan defaults that might serve the greater good.

The public has responded with a sort of polarization that primarily reacts to changes among elected officials and party activists.  Despite the fact that the plurality of people in the United States range from center-right to center-left, the public is perceived as more politically polarized than their issue stances would suggest due to what scholar Morris Fiorina terms the “sorting” of party elites over the last two and a half decades. This shift, aided by the growing influence of social media, has culminated in a new variant – negative partisanship.  Identified by elections expert Alan Abramowitz, this shift has resulted primarily in the decline of opinion towards the opposing party even as attitudes towards one’s own party remained stable and, in 2016, dropped.  The votes in that election were cast against opposing parties/ candidates, rather than for the candidates that aligned with voters’ own parties. Does this team rivalry mentality prevent change that can return us to an effective government that deliberates and discerns actions based on the good of the whole rather than political biases?

Despite the current circumstances, some of which have been quite dire for the health of representative democracy, room for change exists.  The post-election challenges, despite the lack of legal evidence to merit them, culminated in violent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.  Even in the face of reservations over this event by Republicans in the public, the impact of PID as a political lens is still evident as the country approaches the inauguration of the Biden administration. Yet, given the existence of negative partisanship, the majority of the public does not serve as a stable base for either party, which indicates that the voting landscape is ripe for realignment if leaders can tap into shared values.  According to the Carr Center, those common values do exist.  But promoting that change will require collaboration and empathy, with individuals and leaders who support the principles of representative democracy seeing beyond labels and stereotypes to the human beings within groups.  Another sports team analogy provides a suggestion as to how we as citizens can break the habit of overreacting to partisanship.

Ardent fans in Buffalo and Baltimore illustrated how it can be done following the January 16 American Football Conference (AFC) divisional playoff game between their teams.  During the second half of the game, quarterback Lamar Jackson left with a concussion and could not return.  The Buffalo Bills won the game, but the story did not end there, with one team jubilant and another bitter.  The Buffalo fan base (aka Bills Mafia) took a page out of its own playbook, researching causes that Jackson has supported, and kicked off a donation drive in his honor to the Louisville affiliate of Blessings in a Backpack.  Ravens fans motivated others in their flock to contribute as well.  Although the financial impact is inspirational – as of the completion of this post, over $290,000 had been raised in less than 48 hours – the fan to fan communication has also been incredible.  Fans connecting individually have been able to see beyond the stereotype of their sports rivals and support a common end regardless of wins and losses.  Hungry children are undoubtedly the winners.

(The nature and change in political behavior in the United States have many more layers of complexity, but this element serves as the focus for this post.  For a more detailed examination of the current and historical party systems, please read the segment on political parties in our sister series From the Field.)





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