Political Psychology

People depolarize after elections as their attachment to their preferred political party weakens

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Affective polarization — one’s level of animosity towards political rivals – tends to decline in the wake of elections, according to new research that examined data from 42 countries. The study, published in the journal Electoral Studies, indicates that this depolarization is partially the result of citizens becoming less strongly attached to political parties over time.

“Affective polarization is one of the main concerns for the health and quality of contemporary democracies. Some polarization may be beneficial for democracy, since it can, for example, increase turnout in elections. However, intense affective polarization could be detrimental for the quality of democracy and could even become a driver of democratic decay,” said study author Enrique Hernández of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

“If citizens see their political opponents as existential enemies, most compromises among parties will be deemed unacceptable (which might result in political gridlock) and individuals might be more likely to justify the violation of democratic norms. In other words, if citizens profoundly dislike the parties they do not identify with, this puts a strain in the pluralistic values of respect for diversity that democracies are expected to protect and promote.”

For their study, the researchers analyzed 99 post-electoral surveys conducted between 1996 and 2016 through the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems. In the surveys, the participants were asked to indicate how much they liked or disliked various national political parties on a 10-point scale.

In addition, the surveys asked the participants how close they felt to the party they identify with and assessed their perception of the ideological differences between parties.

“In this paper, we were interested in analyzing the short-term temporal dynamics that drive affective polarization in order to gain insights as to how intense affective polarization can be overcome. Specifically, we were interested in analyzing whether the polarization that elections are likely to generate decays over time,” Hernández explained.

While all of the surveys were conducted after an election, the time of the survey interviews varied from one day after the election to one year after the election. The researchers used this variation in timing “to assess to what extent citizens depolarize after an election has taken place and why that happens.”

“The answer is that, on average, citizens depolarize after elections and that they do so because they perceive fewer ideological differences between parties and their attachment to their preferred party weakens,” Hernández told PsyPost.

“Elections heighten partisan conflict, highlight the ideological differences between parties and make people feel more attached to their preferred party. Hence, as expected, elections generate and heighten affective polarization. However, in most cases affective polarization also declines quite rapidly as we move away from election day. When the campaign is over and the elections loose salience people become less strongly attached to their preferred party and they perceive less ideological differences between parties.”

“This ultimately ‘calms everybody down’: moderates our positive feelings towards our preferred part, as well as our negative feelings towards the opposite camp. In other, words people become less affectively polarized as we move away from election day,” Hernández said.

But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“First of all, this happens on average: considering 99 elections that took place between 1996 and 2016 in 42 countries. This means that not in every case people will depolarize after the election. For example, we can think that if the outcome of the election is controversial/contested (or very close) and/or one party does not accept the results probably we will not witness depolarization,” Hernández explained.

“Second, not everybody might depolarize after the election. For example, election losers — those who vote for the party(ies) that do not end up in government — might have a harder time moderating their feelings towards the other parties. Third, and probably more relevant, our design, which focuses on the period after the election, does not allow us to determine whether the process of post-electoral depolarization that we uncover compensates for pre-electoral increases in polarization.”

The researcher noted that elections create a “tradeoff” for democratic countries.

“Election campaigns highlight the ideological differences between parties and make people feel more strongly attached to their preferred party. This is positive because it means that people are better informed about parties’ policy positions and are more likely to be mobilized to participate in the election. However, this is, at the same time, negative because it leads to increasing affective polarization. Ultimately, though, the good news is that when the campaign is over and ‘everything return to normal’ affective polarization significantly decline,” Hernández said.

The study, “Affective polarization and the salience of elections“, was authored by Enrique Hernández, Eva Anduiza, and Guillem Rico.