New research in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior suggests that political polarization that breeds partisan resentment is bad for our health. The findings reveal that although feeling emotionally polarized on one end of the political spectrum is positively correlated with political participation, which in turn is positively correlated with health, the negative health consequences of this emotional commitment are significantly greater than the positive.
Politically America is becoming a land of two realities that are becoming less and less likely to find a way to compromise. This state of affairs has led to feelings of resentment and even animosity. This process is called “affective polarization.”
The consequences of affective polarization can be seen in studies of how people perceive the other party. Since the 1980’s people have been much less likely to rate members of the opposite party as reasonable, intelligent people. In addition, people are more likely to say they have no interest in befriending or dating someone from the other party.
Feeling emotionally polarized on one end of the political spectrum, feeling resentment against those on the other side, and actively avoiding relationships with members of the opposite party is likely to be a stressful endeavor. Since this is so, researcher Micah Nelson attempted to unravel the relationship between affective polarization and health.
The data utilized in this study originated from the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. This survey started in 2014 and has been conducted several times a year since. For this study, a 2016 sample of 4685 individuals were chosen. Responses to three questions that asked if the Democratic or Republican party made them feel frustrated, angry, or afraid indicated subjects’ emotional feelings about the opposing political party. More negative emotions were associated with more affective polarization.
They next gathered the responses indicating political participation. People revealed behaviors like whether they voted, went to a political rally, donated money, or had a political bumper sticker. Finally, they collected participants’ responses to a question about how they perceived their health on a scale from excellent to poor.
Statistical analysis of this data yielded some heterogeneous results. The negative relationship between affective polarization and health was so great “such that the polarized political environment was proposed to operate as the sociopolitical stressor,” stated Nelson.
However, those high in affective polarization were more likely to be politically active, and political activity had a small positive relationship with health. The researcher posited that political participation acts as a buffer to the adverse health effects of affective polarization; without political participation, the health consequences associated with affective polarization would be much more significant.
Limitations include the cross-sectional study design. Without longitudinal research, firm conclusions cannot be made. Additionally, the health questions were vague, so it is unknown if there are specific health consequences.
Despite these issues, Nelson said this research is valuable to understanding the connections between political emotions and public health. He concludes their study this way, “Thus, this article provides further evidence that the sociological truism that the social environment shapes population health extends to the politico-cultural context as well.”
The study, “Resentment Is Like Drinking Poison? The Heterogeneous Health Effects of Affective Polarization“, was authored by Micah Nelson.