Americans are more likely to hate each other based on politics than based on race.
That's the conclusion of research by Stanford University's Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, in "Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization," a paper published and reported by the Stanford News in June of 2014.
The researchers used the same tools typically used to measure racial bias to compare whites' negative associations with blacks to Democrats' and Republicans' negative feelings about each other. The subjects exhibited racial bias, but their political biases turned out to be stronger.
Iyengar and Westwood also concluded that this judgment of people's politics could apply outside the voting booth, in Americans' social lives. In a study in which subjects were asked to evaluate student resumés that contained various clues about race and party affiliation, Democrats and Republicans favored the resumés of those affiliated with their party much more intensely than they favored those who shared their race.
In a second study, the researchers observed subjects playing a game designed to measure trust, in which player one was given money and told that she could give some, all, or none of it to player two. People handed over much larger amounts when they were playing with someone who shared their political affiliation.
The results "demonstrate that partisan cues now also influence decisions outside of politics and that partisanship is a political and social divide," the researchers wrote. In other words, we use information about a person's politics to decide whether we like, trust, and want to have a relationship with him or her.
The study authors present these conclusions as if they're surprising or problematic. Iyengar went so far as to suggest that the results call for social interventions, telling the Stanford News, "What we need is greater personal contact between Republicans and Democrats."
But the results actually make perfect sense — in a way, they're deeply encouraging. If we're going to judge each other on something (and, come on, we are), judgment based on political leanings — a good proxy for a person's views on what they want for the country and the world — should be more intense than judgment based on race.
What's wrong with judging people's politics?
In an interview with the Stanford News, Iyanger argued, "Unlike race, gender or other social divides where attitudes and behavior are constrained by social norms of civility and tolerance — there are no similar pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents." The fact that there are greater "hostile feelings" across the political aisle than there are between people of different races is "largely due to a witches' brew of political candidates relying on negative campaigning and partisan news sources serving up vitriolic commentary," he said.
"Witches' brew?" Maybe. But perhaps there's a simpler explanation: people's politics affect how others view them because they should.
After all, as the authors themselves point out in the research paper, "racial identity is acquired at birth." (Most of the time, at least.) Meanwhile, we have control over our political beliefs. Though they may be initially inherited from our parents and communities, we're free to change them as we form our own opinions about the world and develop our own values, and plenty of people do just that. The political affiliations we choose don't say everything about who we are, but they certainly say something.
These views aren't just inconsequential preferences, like the ones we might have for one sports team over another or country music vs. hip-hop. In aJanuary 2014 interview with the Morning Call, the author of a study on the predicted death toll in states that failed to expand Medicaid under Obamacare put it this way: "Political decisions have consequences, some of them lethal."
It's fine that judgments based on politics inform our social lives
You can go much too far with this, of course. People shouldn't use political discrimination to discriminate in hiring decisions. What you think about gay marriage has nothing to do with how good you are at graphic design. But it's a totally reasonable thing to take into account when deciding whether you want to, say, date someone.
Iyengar seemed perplexed by this behavior, though. "We were particularly surprised at the extent to which party politics has become a litmus test for interpersonal relations. Marriage across party lines is extremely rare," he told the Stanford News.
Why would it be surprising that people "across party lines" would steer clear of each other in their personal lives? Who wants to sit across the dinner table from a person whose views about the issues of the day (like whether gay people should be allowed to get married, or what should happen to the immigrant children at the border, or whether the racism that justified the Voting Rights Act still exists) are, to them, incomprehensible, illogical, or morally bankrupt?
Yes, it's healthy and intellectually important to understand all sides of an argument. But that doesn't mean you need to marry the other side of the argument. Or even force yourself to think warm and fuzzy thoughts about the person delivering the other side of the argument. Right or wrong, these beliefs are often core to who people are, or at least who they think themselves to be. It is not so strange that they would want a partner and friends who match them.
Leave the push for collegiality to politicians
To increase political collegiality among the public, "what we need is greater personal contact between Republicans and Democrats," Iyengar said. He suggested "significant social interventions that enhance the political heterogeneity of neighborhoods and friendship groups."
But who said "increased political collegiality" among everyday people was a goal? Sure, for elected officials who have to maintain friendly relationships in order to have the discussions that lead to compromise, reaching across the aisle in a civil manner is important. For the rest of us, it's really not.
One of the unexamined assumptions in the paper is that racial hostility is an appropriate baseline against which to measure politically inspired hostility ("The general agreement that race represents the deepest divide in American society makes racial affect a particularly robust benchmark for the assessment of partisan affect," the researchers explain). But so long as we're using that comparison, this is a country where three quarters of white people don't have a single black friend. There's a lot of social segregation in America, and some of it is based on qualities much more worrying than politics.
If we're now judging people more for their politics more than their race, then it means we're finally starting to understand what matters. Good for us.