A cross-cutting calm: How social sorting drives affective polarization

Mason, Lilliana
Public Opinion Quarterly

Although anecdotal stories of political anger and enthusiasm appear to be provoked largely by issues such as gay marriage or healthcare reform, social sorting is capable of playing a powerful role in driving anger and enthusiasm, undercutting the perception that only practical disagreements are driving higher levels of political rancor. Because a highly aligned set of social identities increases an individual’s perceived differences between groups, the emotions that result from group conflict are likely to be heightened among well-sorted partisans. An experimental design in a national online survey manipulates political threats and reassurances, including a threat to a party and a threat to distinct policy goals. Issue positions are found to drive anger and enthusiasm in the presence of issue-based messages, but not all party-based messages. Partisan identity drives anger and enthusiasm in the presence of party-based threats and reassurances, but not all issue-based messages. Social sorting, however, drives anger and enthusiasm in response to all threats and reassurances, suggesting that well-sorted partisans are more reliably emotionally reactive to political messages. Finally, these results are driven not by the most-sorted partisans, but by the emotional dampening effect that occurs among those with the most cross-cutting identities. As social sorting increases in the American electorate, the cooler heads inspired by cross-cutting identities are likely to be taking up a smaller portion of the electorate.