Radical American Partisanship

Mapping Extreme Hostility, Its Causes, & What It Means for Democracy.

Nathan P. Kalmoe & Lilliana Mason

Status: writing, final data collection, proposal under review (University of Chicago Press).

Political violence is rising in the United States, alarming citizens and leaders alike. Other basic democratic norms are also eroding, threatening the foundation of American democracy itself. At the same time, Republicans and Democrats are newly divided along racial and ethnic lines that rooted massive bloodshed and the collapse of democracy in our nation’s past.

Our book makes sense of the contentious present and where we could be going with a groundbreaking study of radicalism among ordinary American partisans, including demonization, violent political attitudes and behaviors, and a win-at-all costs mentality that undermines democratic elections. Just how extreme have partisans in the public become? What drives their radicalism? And what role do they play in maintaining democracy or violently undermining it, indirectly and directly?

We draw deeply upon history and political science to put our present partisan fractiousness in context and to explain the broad patterns of political and social change we now see. Our individual-level studies utilize more than a dozen new nationally-representative surveys and experiments motivated by psychological theories of identity, group conflict, and aggression. This work upends the modern study of American political behavior by showing that ordinary partisanship is far more volatile and dangerous than scholars have recognized in the past century of study. In doing so, we also provide the broadest and most detailed individual-level view of contentious mass politics dynamics ever assembled anywhere in the world.

We argue that radical partisan views create environments that encourage extreme action by a few, and they serve as preconditions for those who do act. The views are also concerning in their own right, as signs of democratic deterioration and extreme animus. The first empirical section of the book presents survey evidence on the scope of the problem: violent views, aggressive behaviors, moral disengagement, and rejection of democratic elections and their implications. Next, we identify who these radical partisans are based on social, demographic, political, and psychological traits.

The last three empirical chapters investigate how elections, political violence, and messages from leaders and ordinary citizens pacify or enflame radical partisan views. We conclude by reflecting on the future of radical partisanship in the U.S.

Our book is ultimately a vital warning, not a forecast of inevitable doom: partisanship can go to very dark places that most Americans—even political scholars and practitioners—have not yet recognized. But we emphasize the contingency of outcomes yet to be determined: leaders and ordinary citizens ultimately have agency to determine which path we go down. Identifying the threat is the first essential step to avoiding the violence and democratic failures that  afflicted America’s past and the politics of countries around the world.

Full book proposal

Ch. 1: Radical Roots
Ch. 2: The Scope of Radicalism
Ch. 3: From Radical Views to Aggressive Behavior
Ch. 4: Who are the Radical Partisans?
Ch. 5: The Electoral Connection
Ch. 6: Reactions to Partisan Violence
Ch. 7: Messages that Fan (or Douse) the Flames
Ch. 8: The Future of Radical Partisanship

Conference Presentations:
APSA 2018: Lethal Mass Partisanship.
APSA 2019: Election Distrust & the Orthogonality of Radical Partisanship.
CCES 2019: Campaign Violence: A Natural Experiment.

Our Datasets:
2020 CCES Panel – observational & experiments
2019-20 3-wave YouGov panel – observational & experiments
2019 Qualtrics – 3 big message experiments
2018 ANES (Nov) – observational 
2018 CCES pre/post (Sept-Dec) – observational, natural experiment, experiments 
2018 GQR/Catalist/Nat’l Consortium (Oct) – observational (moral disengagement items)
2018 Nielsen/Critical Issues (May) – observational (milder items)
2017 CCES (Nov-Dec) – observational & experiments 
2016 ANES 2016 – observational
2010 GfK (Aug) – observational & experiments
1997 Pew (Nov) – observational 
1960s & 1970s data – observational (legitimacy of violent protests)

LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication (Professorships: Tom Jarreau Hardin, Howard & Nantelle Mitchiner Gittinger)
University of Maryland’s Dept. of Political Science
Facebook Integrity Research Grant
Thanks to ANES, GQR, & Pew for sharing their public & private data with us.