Partisanship and the Political Animal
Research sheds light on the fascinating science behind partisanship
Posted Jan 18, 2019
In his Presidential Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington warned of the dangers of a two-party state that might pit American voters against each other in an "alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism".
Partisanship of this nature, he said, could cause "ill-founded jealousies and false alarms" and could "open the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions".
George Washington’s words ably portended the current FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, echoing the words of American lawyer and founding father John Adams, who referred to a division of the American nation into two great parties as the greatest potential evil that could ever face the US Constitution.
In the days of filibustering and the longest shutdown in US history, American voters could be forgiven for wondering how a nation came to be so historically divided.
Similar concerns are currently being echoed across the Atlantic, where the hallowed halls of Westminster are currently awash with talk of a historically divided Government, following the equally historic defeat of Prime Minister May’s Brexit bill.
So exactly how has partisanship reached such historic levels?
Biology & Politics
One fascinating variable that appears to affect our willingness to align ourselves with a political party lies in neurological differences that tend to emerge across the ideological spectrum. In fact, the role of biology in developing partisan behaviours is fascinating.
It is worth noting, before we explore these variables, that the role of human biology in politics is not new, and can actually be traced as far back as 400 BC, to the days of Aristotle and Plato. Researchers Albert Somit & Steven Peterson noted in their recently published book Biology & Politics, for example, that "Allusions to biological influences on human politics are as old as the Greek philosophers".
Modern neurological studies, as it turns out, have proved equally compelling.
An insightful recent study led by Professor Read Montague, Director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, for example, demonstrated that it is possible, up to 98% of the time, to accurately predict the partisan affiliation of a voter using brain scan technology. Similarly, political scientist Drew Westen recently reported that around 80% of the US population could be considered to be politically partisan.
Westen discusses the way in which emotionally appealing political campaigns are able to stimulate the brain's reward centre so powerfully that their effects could be likened to the way in which taking drugs stimulates the brain. In his 2007 text The Political Brain, Westen memorably opined that such a powerful biological effect gave "new meaning to the term political junkie". His findings shed valuable light on the way in which political parties are able to engender such loyalty amongst their base, a vital cog in the partisanship wheel. Former Vice President and one-time presidential candidate Al Gore similarly referred to politics as addictive.
The neurochemistry of power also carries implications for partisan politics, continuing the drug analogy; according to Dr. Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, power activates the reward centres in our brain in a similar way to cocaine and can subsequently become addictive. This carries potential implications for politicians who gain or cede power, and for their followers who experience being on a winning or losing political side.
Biological Differences & Political Divisions
The success of emotionally-driven political campaigns discussed by Westen is due to understanding of differences in biologically-influenced cognitive styles of liberal and conservative ideologues by the political consultants who craft the campaigns. A 2015 study published in the journal Science found that liberal ideologues tend to be happier and more receptive to positive-affect messages. Conservative ideologues, conversely, are more receptive to negative fear- and anger-based appeals, demonstrate a greater respect for authority, and exhibit a notably greater sensitivity to threatening stimuli. Political campaigns that capitalize on these differences are invariably more effective but risk deepening ideological divisions.
Politics & Pathos
As a species we also appear heavily receptive to pathos, a form of emotionally persuasive speech. This rhetorical strategy is employed extensively by many modern political candidates across the ideological spectrum as it produces powerfully seductive neural effects. The link between populism and pathos is well founded, with pathos particularly emergent, for example, in Donald Trump's 2016 Presidential Campaign. It was also employed in many Russian Reflexive Control strategies that explicitly targeted American voters on a physiological, emotional level. It manipulated voters' political perceptions and reshaped their political and social realities to deepen political divisions and force a preferred outcome (in this case, for Donald Trump to win the 2016 Presidential Election, as indicated in the FBI's indictment of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency).
It's No Good Fighting an Election on the Facts
As reported in a 2006 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, we tend to process data emotionally, not rationally—a concept that appears to have been exploited extremely effectively in recent election cycles. Managing Director of (the now defunct) Cambridge Analytica, Mark Turnbull, for example, was recorded in an undercover investigation (subsequently broadcast as part of Channel 4's 'Data, Democracy & Dirty Tricks' series) referring to hope and fear as the two key drivers of an election. Turnbull concluded that "It's no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because actually it's all about emotion."
Turnbull is right; if we look at the British 2016 Referendum to Leave the EU (Brexit), for example, we can see these strategies play out intensely in the development of ‘Project Fear’ rhetoric, alongside an almost constant invocation of pathos by Vote Leave campaigners. Fear currently plays a key role in the ongoing US government shutdown, in the form of a fear of immigrants seeking to gain entry to the US at the US-Mexico border. Encouragement of political division in general terms, via the use of emotion and pathos, now appears to form a strategic dimension of many modern populist political campaigns, appealing powerfully to our evolutionarily driven tribal instincts and deepening divisions to strengthen political affiliations.
The Attraction of Politics
The power of emotionally appealing, pathos-driven campaigns has, in recent cycles, been exponentially amplified by a strategic granular microtargeting of voters with political advertisements subsequently packaged, repackaged, and adapted to appear as appealing and entertaining as possible to each individual voter. It is a practice that recently prompted the UK-based Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) to call for a suspension and moratorium of all microtargeted political advertising data, which likely strengthens loyalty and voting across partisan lines.
The Dangers of Partisanship
Partisanship may reflect biological differences and universal evolutionary instincts, but it carries unique dangers. Political scientist Drew Westen discusses, for example, how our brain "begins to search for ways to turn off the spigot of unpleasant emotion"—a form of cognitive dissonance that makes us more likely to forgive, or condone, egregious moral and ethical acts by a preferred politician or party. A 2015 study, led by Professor Patrick Kraft at the University of Wisconsin, similarly reported that voters tended to distrust, denigrate, and ignore high-quality data and scientific evidence presented by an opposing political party or candidate, yet tended to uncritically accept evidence provided by their own political party.
Such practices may find their roots in our species evolutionary need for social identity - with studies showing the key role of political allegiance in that process. Habitually reinforcing our social and political identities via social media engagement might, in the short-term, offer distinct neural rewards (such as boosting dopamine and oxytocin levels), but it also runs the risk of encouraging ever-deepening divisions and partisanship.
A 2011 University of Michigan study, published in The Journal of Politics, explains how our own testosterone and dopamine levels rise when we watch our favoured candidate or party win. When they lose, our cortisol levels peak. In this sense, we take on the wins and losses of candidates, vicariously experiencing their pleasure as our pleasure, and internalising their losses as our own.
Politics, it seems, is often driven by emotion. Perhaps a deeper understanding of neurology will eventually allow voters to appreciate the different lens with which ideologues across the political spectrum view the world, eventually promoting greater consensus and greater rationality. Until then, it remains to be seen if we can overcome the distinctly human impulse to vote not with our heads but with our hearts, and to resist the political and social forces that seek to drive us apart.