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Ambivalent Partisans

- October 4, 2010

“Howard Lavine”:http://www.stonybrook.edu/polsci/hlavine/, “Christopher Johnston”:http://sites.google.com/site/chrisjohnstonswebpage/, and “Marco Steenbergen’s”:http://www.ipw.unibe.ch/content/team/marco_steenbergen/index_eng.html new book, _The Ambivalent Partisan: How Critical Loyalty Promotes Democracy_, speaks directly to the questions I raised this “previous post”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/09/post_257.html about partisan bias in perceptions of fact. This pdf file contains chapters 1, 2, and 5 of the book, and I thank Lavine for sharing them. I “interviewed” Lavine about the book via email, seeking his thoughts on these questions:

* What is partisan ambivalence?
* How can we measure it?
* How prevalent is it?
* What are its sources?
* What are its consequences?

The interview, slightly condensed and edited, is after the jump.

_What Is Partisan Ambivalence?_

Partisan ambivalence is a disjuncture between an individual’s long-term identification with a political party and his or her short-term evaluations of the parties’ capacities to govern and deliver benefits to the public. This disequilibrium arises when the parties behave out of step with normal expectations: when the one’s own party is plagued by scandal, when it embraces issue positions that are inconsistent with core ideological principles, or when it fields poor candidates, presides over economic downturn, or mismanages an international conflict or a domestic emergency. Partisan ambivalence may also arise when the other party is perceived as doing a commendable job in managing government affairs. For example, this was the case among Republicans during the economic boom of the late 1990s.

Whether it is a negative evaluation of one’s own party, a positive evaluation of the other party, or both, the outcome is that identity and evaluation do not point in the same direction. We refer to this splintering between components of the partisan system as partisan ambivalence; the people who experience it are ambivalent partisans. Partisan ambivalence is not reducible to other voter attributes such as the strength of party identification or political sophistication.

_How Can We Measure It? And How Prevalent Is It?_


It’s prevalent. The two panels in the figure above rely on different measurement strategies to tally the percentage of citizens possessing at least one identity-conflicting thought or feeling (either a negative reaction to their own party or a positive reaction toward the other party). Panel A is based on pooled data from the American National Election Study from 1980-2004. It aggregates responses to open-ended questions that ask respondents to report what they like and dislike about each of the two parties. Panel B relies on measures based on psychological studies of ambivalence that we wrote for multiple waves of the 2008-2009 ANES panel study. Here, respondents are separately asked whether they have any positive and negative thoughts or feelings about each of the parties (with follow-up questions about their intensity).

To measure partisan ambivalence, we simply tally up the number (or intensity) of identity-conflicting responses (i.e., in-party negativity + out-party positivity). The different item formats yield a highly similar result: somewhere between _a third and half_ of the electorate experiences some discrepancy between their partisan identity and their evaluations of the two parties.

_What Are Its Sources?_

Trends in partisan ambivalence depend largely on perceptions of recent party performance. For example, take the Republican during the latter part of the last decade. Appearing all but unbeatable after the terrorist attacks in 2001, the party gradually began to lose ground after Bush’s reelection in 2004. The spike in violence in Iraq, the fumbled response to Hurricane Katrina, public corruption indictments and sex scandals among Republicans in Congress, and finally, economic collapse in September of 2008 coincided with a seismic wave of negativity toward the party among Republicans. The party had a favorability rating of over 80 percent among Republican voters after the presidential election in 2004. By Election Day 2008, this percentage had been cut in half.


The figure above shows a longer time series (1952-2004), disaggregated by party. Spikes in partisan ambivalence for a given partisan group can largely be explained by political events. For example, Democrats in 1952 were ambivalent because they liked Ike; they were ambivalent again in 1968 as the party descended into chaos (northern liberals turned against the war; southern conservatives resented civil rights). Ambivalence among Republicans spiked in 1974 (Watergate) and again in 1982 (poor economic conditions under Reagan). Democrats were ambivalent in 1994 (dissatisfaction with Clinton’s performance), and Republicans were ambivalent throughout Clinton’s second term (economic boom).

_What Are the Consequences of Partisan Ambivalence?_

Partisan ambivalence affects two key dimensions of political reasoning: its depth and objectivity. Other things equal, ambivalent partisans engage in more careful deliberation than their “univalent” counterparts. They are more responsive to the political environment, and they rely on more valuable—but cognitively costly—criteria in forming their political judgments. They also hold more accurate perceptions of the political world, as they are less prone to view it through a partisan lens.

We find that whether in judging aspects of the factual political landscape (e.g., economic performance, the roll-call voters of senators), forming policy preferences or making vote decisions, univalent partisans rely predominantly on party identification (even when it has no diagnostic value), with little additional input from more valuable sources of information. Ambivalent partisans, by contrast, perceive the world accurately (e.g., they rely on real economic signals rather than partisanship in forming perceptions of the economy); they form their policy preferences in a principled manner (on the basis of core values and material interests), and they communicate those preferences by making issues an important component of their electoral decisions.

Most importantly, ambivalent partisans do not simply react mechanically to the political ideas they encounter; rather, they approximate the type of critical, systematic, and open-minded thought praised by democratic theorists (e.g., Dewey, J.S. Mill). This leads to a completely different normative conception of the “good citizen” than has been suggested by research and commentary centered on what respondents know about politics.