Affective polarization

There is growing evidence that citizens in Western democracies are becoming more hostile towards people with different views or party preferences. Revealingly, the number of Americans that disapproves of a marriage between their children and somebody from the opposing political party has increased dramatically. Research suggests that in Europe, too, ideology and partisanship can function as a powerful cue to disregard or detest fellow citizens. This process of affective polarization is potentially highly problematic. A functioning democracy can cope with disagreement but presupposes a certain minimum of mutual understanding. Affective polarization could erode the norms underpinning pluralist democracy.

Despite growing scholarly awareness of affective polarization, we do not understand which factors shape it, nor how it affects democratic norms. My project, funded by an NWO Veni grant, therefore aims to identify the origins and consequences of affective polarization in Europe. This knowledge is crucial to grasp the phenomenon and to formulate ways to avoid societal and political dysfunction.

In terms of origins, I will establish how affective polarization is shaped by (1) the alleged sorting of citizens into homogeneous ‘bubbles’ of like-minded people; (2) the emphasis in the political debate on cultural issues surrounding identity; and (3) the way politicians talk about their opponents. In terms of consequences, I will establish how affective polarization affects democratic norms. If those with opposing views become a socially distant ‘outgroup’, do we still fully support their right to participate in democracy?

To answer these questions, I will (1) combine cross-national survey data sources with a content analysis of politicians’ speeches to map mass and elite affective polarization and its correlates; and (2) conduct innovative vignette experiments in three countries to isolate affective polarization’s origins and consequences. Together, this will help to better understand today’s heated social and political divisions – and how they might be bridged.