Radical American Partisanship

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

Nathan P. Kalmoe & Lilliana Mason

Status: manuscript in production with University of Chicago Press (Early 2022 pub).

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?

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, and moral disengagement. Next, we identify who these radical partisans are based on social, demographic, political, and psychological traits and trends over time.

The remaining empirical chapters investigate what justifies violence for partisans, and 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., including the opportunities it provides for democratization. While partisans in each party hold similarly radical views, one side is committed to advance multiracial democracy while the other is violently opposed to it, and that makes all the moral difference–a point we make starkly clear.

Our book is ultimately a vital warning that we face immense threats, but it is 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 some radicalism can also be essential to advancing democracy. Ultimately, leaders and ordinary citizens have agency to determine which path we go down, if they have the will to bear the costs. Identifying the threat is the first essential step away from the democratic failures of America’s past and present.

Ch. 1: Recognizing Partisan Extremes
Ch. 2: Radical Historical Roots
Ch. 3: Radical Partisan Psychology
Part I: Identifying Radical Partisans
Ch. 4: The Scope of Radicalism
Ch. 5: Trends: Stumbling Toward a Breakdown
Ch. 6: Who are the Radical Partisans?
Part II: Radical Behaviors, Conditions, & Events
Ch. 7: From Radical Views to Aggressive Behavior
Ch. 8: Historical Precedents & Reasons for Violence
Ch. 9: Reactions to Elections, & Violence
Part III: Communicating Radicalism
Ch. 10: Messages that Fan the Flames & Douse the Fire

Conclusion: 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.
Carnegie Endowment for Int’l Peace 2019: Violent American Partisanship
Cornell Workshop on Democratic Resilience 2019: Roots, Risks, & Rewards of Polarization
Society for Affective Sciences 2020: Emotions in Violent Partisanship

Our Datasets:
2020 CCES Oct/Nov Panel – observational & message experiment
Oct 2020 YouGov Omnibus (Democracy Fund) – observational (violence & MD items)
Sept 2020 Voter Study Group – observational (violence items)
June & Sept 2020 UCLA/Nationscape surveys – observational
2020 Student Study – noise blast behavioral aggression test
2020 Lucid Study – rationales for political violence
2019 Voter Study Group survey – observational (4 violence items)

2019-20 3-wave YouGov panel – observational & experiments
2019 Qualtrics – 3 big message experiments
2018 CCES Oct/Nov panel – observational, natural experiment, experiments 
2018 GQR/Catalist/Nat’l Consortium (Oct) – observational (moral disengagement items)
2018 Student Study (Spring) – hot sauce behavioral aggression test
2018 Nielsen/Critical Issues (May) – observational (all but violence items)

2017 CCES (Nov-Dec) – observational & experiments 
2010 GfK (Aug) – observational & experiments
1997 Pew (Nov) – observational 

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
Democracy Fund
Thanks to ANES, GQR, Voter Study Group, & Pew for sharing their public & private data with us.