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How July 4th reduces partisan animosity – at least for a moment

Research shows the effect of emphasizing a shared American identity.

- July 4, 2024
fireworks on the National Mall, in Washington, DC, with a large crowd of people celebrating July 4th.
(cc) Anthony Quintano, via Wikimedia Commons.

July 4th brings fireworks, cookouts, and patriotic pomp. What it might also bring, even if only briefly, is less partisan animosity.

That is the conclusion of a new book by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Matthew Levendusky, building off this prior article. The book, Our Common Bonds, does what its subtitle suggests: “Use what Americans share to help bridge the partisan divide.”

One topic in the book is how finding a common identity can help us see our political opponents more favorably. Psychology research has long shown that emphasizing a shared group identity can help overcome the divisions created by other identities. Partisan hostilities clearly create some of those divisions.

A common American identity

Levendusky studies American identity as one possible common identity. In one 2015 study, he divided a sample of Americans into two groups. The first group read an article about reasons to be proud of their national identity and then wrote a paragraph about why they were proud to be American. People typically wrote about things like freedom and opportunity. The second group read an unrelated article.

Respondents were then asked to evaluate the opposite party on a 0 to 100 scale. Over the past 40-plus years, the average on this scale has dropped about 20 points – a trend known as affective polarization. Did this exercise in thinking about American identity lead people to see the opposite party more favorably? 

Yes, it did. Views of the opposite party increased by about 6 points, compared to the group that read the unrelated article. People who had thought about their American identity also saw the opposite party more positively in terms of various traits, like their intelligence, and were more likely to describe the opposite party as “American.” 

A second iteration of this experiment that Levendusky conducted in 2020 also had the same results, even though partisan animosity only intensified during the Trump presidency.

But what about outside the confines of experiments? That brings us to July 4th. Levendusky takes advantage of a large survey that interviewed daily samples throughout the 2008 election year. With daily samples, Levendusky isolates attitudes among respondents interviewed right around July 4th as compared to other days.

He finds that respondents interviewed close to July 4th had a more positive view of the opposite party’s presidential candidate compared to those interviewed at other points in July and August. The effect was about 3 to 4 points on this same 0 to 100 scale. 

The same thing happened later that summer during the 2008 Olympics – another event that could easily bring a common American identity to mind. Levendusky shows that feelings toward the other party’s presidential candidate also improved over the August weekend when American swimmer Michael Phelps broke the record for the most gold medals won by any individual athlete at a single Olympic Games.

Levendusky notes that these declines in partisan animosity are modest and, in the case of a holiday like July 4th, temporary. It is not easy to undo decades of growing dislike for the other side. But at the least, maybe there will be a little less dislike today.