Sunday, June 5, 2016

The makings of a violent election

Back in March, when the Republican nomination contest was still unsettled, I posted this about Trump's habit of encouraging violence against protesters.  If you look back at what I wrote, one of my two main points was that Trump's propensity to not just provoke, but actively encourage violence made him stand out as unique on the political scene in such a way that the media would have a difficult time maintaining the illusion of symmetry.

Well, any journalists worried about the challenge of trying to describe Democrats and Republicans as symmetric can breathe a sigh of relief.  The growing pattern of violence among Trump protesters really should shut up the smug, self-righteous liberals who think of their side as intrinsically superior and incapable of sinking to the same depths as those horrible Republicans.  Yes, Trump is different from Clinton because Trump actively encourages violence, but let's talk about the voters.

If you couldn't tell by now, I'm a misanthrope.  I don't really like anyone.  Except my wife.  I like her.

Anyway, there are plenty of other places to read polemics about incivility, blah, blah, blah.  If you are reading my blog, you want some political science.

So let's talk about partisanship.  If there is one point I beat into my students' heads (sorry-not-sorry about the violent imagery), it is that party identification is the core concept that explains most of political beliefs and behavior.  If you can know one fact about a person, the fact that gives you the most information, politically speaking, is that person's party identification.

So, what is party identification, really?  Ummm....

Well, we don't have a really good answer.  My general answer comes from my interpretation of an old article by Philip Converse, called, "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  The core observation of that article is that most people are cognitively incapable of grasping abstract concepts like liberalism and conservatism.  So, they think in more simplistic terms.  A plurality of voters, according to Converse, think in terms of group identification.  By extension, then, I would assert that partisanship is merely a form of group identification, frequently determined by other social groupings, like race, class, etc.

Group identification, of course, leads to in-group/out-group categorization.  And, according to Alan Abramowitz, that now leads us to "negative partisanship," where people are motivated, not by positive attitudes towards their own party, but negative attitudes towards the opposing party.

There's a lot to that concept, but I'm not fully on board yet.  On the Trump side, there is clear animosity towards Latinos, not just immigrants, as we can see from Trump's insistence that a judge, born in Indiana, must be removed from his case because of Latino heritage.  On the left, there is certainly animosity towards Trump himself and his followers.  And this is becoming violent on both sides.  Negative attitudes towards the opposing party are certainly there.

Where I'm not convinced is the lack of positive attitudes towards one's own party.  There are two other possibilities.  First, there is the possibility that negative attitudes towards peoples' own party is just a manifestation of the general decline in trust towards political institutions.  That brings us to PIG-PIE-PAO.  Mmmmmm....  Pie....  This is the distinction that V.O. Key drew between "parties in government," "parties in the electorate," and, "parties as organizations."  Parties, according to Key, were tripartite institutions.  I'm not convinced that people dislike the members of their own party in the electorate.  The existence of an out-group requires the existence of an in-group.

Then, there is the possibility that we are observing the "socially desirable response."  If there is a response to a survey question that people think will make them look better, they will give it.  Claiming to dislike/distrust one's own party makes one look cynical, and cynicism is cool, right?

I'm not a cynic.  I'm a nihilist.

Anyway, the point is that while negative attitudes towards the opposing party are real, stronger than ever, and prompting increasing incidents of violence, attitudes towards peoples' own parties are less clear.  One way or another, strap in.  This one will be ugly.

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