After a year fraught with political partisanship in Washington, Wesleyan students and professors spent this past Thursday taking an academic look at the nationwide gridlock. About 60 students and faculty members came to a packed room in the Public Affairs Center to hear Stanford University political science Professor Shanto Iyengar give a lecture titled “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.”
Iyengar’s lecture focused on increasing evidence of group polarization in American politics. Many of his points came from an academic article of the same name as his talk, which Iyengar wrote earlier this year in conjunction with Sean Westwood, a PhD candidate in the Communications Department at Stanford.
Iyengar began the talk by explaining the purpose of his research.
“The work that I am doing is not about ideological polarization; rather, we’re proposing an alternative definition based on the classic concept of social distance,” Iyengar said. “We are referring to polarization simply in the context of like and dislikes, or how Democrats and Republicans feel about each other. [We] used both implicit and explicit measures of affect [to quantify this].”
He went on to describe the widening split between the beliefs of liberals and those of conservatives.
“It’s sort of a double-barreled cleavage,” Iyengar said. “It’s not just the Democrats versus Republicans; it’s Democrats and liberals versus Republicans and conservatives. Two cleavages packed into one…. That gap, the sentiment gap based on politics, exceeds any other sentiment gap that you could think of, including race. So psychologically speaking, today the party divide seems to be far more intense than the racial one.”
Iyengar presented evidence that displayed the importance of political identity in American society. He believes that the party divide takes root when Americans are young and stays with them their entire lives.
“It turns out that kids in this country have a very strong sense of their political identity as Democrat or Republican as early as kindergarten,” he said. “Obviously that doesn’t have a very strong cognitive underpinning, but this is one of the few areas in political science where we have successfully tracked people over long periods of time…. It turns out that this sense of ‘Am I a Democrat or a Republican?’ stays with people over the entire life cycle. So in that sense, it is not something that can be changed or modified very easily.”
Professor of Government and Co-Chair of the College of Social Studies Donald Moon attended the lecture and gave his thoughts on Iyengar’s argument.
“I was especially impressed by [Iyengar’s] account of how party identification was becoming increasingly salient, and spilling over into other aspects of citizens’ lives—especially the data he gave us on how people have come to be upset at the thought of a family member marrying someone of the opposite party, and how attitudes toward the other party had become stronger and more sharply defined than attitudes toward groups defined in other terms, including race and religion,” Moon wrote in an email to The Argus.
Moon found that while Iyengar’s view on the current level of political polarization is somewhat bleak, he does have an optimistic view for the future of the party divide.
“[Iyengar] acknowledged that the polarization was largely a result of Republicans moving sharply to the right, and that those on the right who had the most extreme views tended to be quite a bit older than the electorate as a whole,” Moon wrote. “As that generation passes from the scene, we can expect that the polarization will decrease.”
Students made up the main contingent of those in attendance, although many professors were also present. Overall, student feedback was positive. One Government major, Alwyn Lansing ’16, expressed her excitement about the lecture.
“I thought that he was really interesting,” Lansing said. “I wanted to go since he’s a Stanford professor, and they’re pretty well known for government and political science. I thought he made good points even though some of them were maybe a little bit partisan.”
Students and faculty said that they left the lecture with a new sense of clarity about party lines and political polarization.
“I thought kids brought up really good questions, and I was glad to see that kids our age were interested in the problem of polarization, as it’s something we’re going to deal with as part of the electorate,” Lansing said.