Max Pixel; Creative Commons Zero-CC0.
Source: Max Pixel; Creative Commons Zero-CC0.

We’re a month into a new presidency, and the partisan rhetoric is blazing hot. Donald Trump is “anti-democratic.” He’s a threat to the constitution. “Fascism” is coming. And he’s going to bring down the United States…the end is nigh. 

Some people forget, though, that the same fiery rhetoric roared after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. One famous Republican mayor once claimed Obama does not love America, and others claimed he’s not an American at all. And clearly the end is nigh if the country’s not being run by a true American.

Anybody who pays attention to politics and public opinion polling knows the drill. Democrats “approve of” Democratic presidents and policies and “disapprove of” Republican presidents and policies, and Republicans reciprocate.

Need a reminder? According to a recent CBS News Poll, 92% of Democrats approve of the way Democratic Obama handled his job as president while only 29% of Republicans approve. On the other hand, in a similar poll 90% of Republicans approve of the way Republican Trump is handling his job as president versus just 10% of Democrats.

Too many knee-jerk partisans attribute evil or stupidity to those who politically disagree with them, hence the heated rhetoric, but the gulf between the two sides is too vast for that to be the only explanation. 

CLEARING THE SMOKE

This gulf makes more sense if you think about how easily and quickly people come to identify with a group. “Minimal group” studies starting in the mid-1960s showed that people quickly start to “favor” others who share a common characteristic and to “derogate” those who don’t. Amazingly, the characteristics can basically be arbitrary like preferring one painting over another. This goes as far as even evaluating presentations by other people randomly assigned to one’s in-group or out-group.

These in-group and out-group dynamics make sense in evolutionary terms. Our ancestors who joined with others were more likely to survive and reproduce. This argument suggests they wanted to join groups because individuals in groups were more likely to acquire vital resources like food and shelter and, well, it’s hard to reproduce without at least one other person around.

Combining the minimal group and evolutionary approaches helps explain the power of partisanship. People easily identify as a political group member—about 90% of US citizens say they identify as or lean toward one of the two major parties—and then they readily approve of their political party’s leaders and disapprove of the other party’s leaders.

HOW EXTREME IS THIS?

As we’ve seen, the partisan end-is-nigh rhetoric is almost inescapable in the relentless need to feed the 24/7 news media. But it goes even further, to basic human characteristics.

Dave Schmitz, a co-author of mine, conducted surveys around the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Among other things, the surveys asked the college-aged respondents to estimate the height of the competing candidates and draw the candidates in a hypothetical meeting. This included presidential candidates Democrat Obama versus Republican McCain in 2008 and Democrat Obama versus Republican Romney in 2012 as well as vice presidential candidates Democrat Biden versus Republican Palin in 2008.

How extreme is the effect of partisanship? The respondents of both parties were more likely to estimate their candidate was taller as well as to draw their candidate as taller. Said another way, for example, Republicans were much more likely to incorrectly draw McCain as taller than Democrats were (Obama is four inches taller), and Democrats were much more likely to incorrectly draw Obama as taller than Romney (Romney is one inch taller). And despite the daily occurrence of seeing men who are significantly taller than women (the average US male is 5’9” and female is 5’4”, so the typical difference is 5 inches), Republican respondents had nearly a 60% probability of drawing Sarah Palin as taller than Joe Biden.

BLINDED BY THE BLAZE

The partisan responses to Obama and Trump are just a continuation of an on-going pattern. There’s a long history of groups trying to burn the other side, probably a very long history, and political groups are no exception. Humans have thrived despite this kind of behavior, so the end is probably not nigh—I hope.