Partisan identities are multi-dimensional: Negative and Expressive Partisanship Shaping Climate Change Polarization in the U.S.

Published in Sustainability

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Partisanship has long been identified as one of the greatest barriers to comprehensive climate action in the United States. Yet, not all partisans are created equal - rather many partisans have a multi-dimensional identity.

Some partisans have a strong partisan identity, while for others, partisan identity is not a major part of how they define themselves. Stated more plainly, some conservatives (or Republicans) strongly identify as a conservative, and some liberals (or Democrats) similarly strongly identify as being a Democrat. Such expressive (‘positive’) partisans define themselves as being part of the party or ideological in-groups and are driven by the desire to remain aligned with other like-minded partisans.

However, some partisans hold hostile views of other partisan groups and their primary political objective is to defeat the policy goals of the other group. This is often called negative partisanship. Negative partisans don’t necessarily have a set of coherent policy goals or a clear ideology. Rather, they dislike supporters of other parties and seek to “win” by defeating their objectives. For instance, a negative Republican might think that Democrats are lazy or untrustworthy.

Here we suggest that Democrats and Republicans do not constitute uniform groups holding homogenous beliefs and preferences. Rather, the expressive and negative aspects of partisanship might account for variation within partisan groups. Perhaps negative Republicans have different climate change policy preferences compared to Republicans who hold less negative views of Democrats? Or perhaps  expressive Democrats which more strongly identification with their party have different climate change  attitudes and behaviors than those with a weaker partisan identification?

We find that much of the resistance to climate policy among Republicans is driven by negative partisanship. Negative Republicans are considerably more likely than other Republicans to oppose policies which would increases fossil fuel taxes as well as those that would subsidize renewable energy. While Republicans who do not have negative partisan identities—that is, they don’t appear to loathe or dislike Democrats—are much closer to Democrats in their degree of support for climate policy. Accordingly, our results imply that a significant amount of the resistance to climate policy is the U.S. is driven by hostility towards Democrats amongst the subset of Republicans with negative partisanship.

However, we also find that negative Democrats—that is, Democrats who loathe or dislike Republicans—are more supportive of climate policy than Democrats who have more neutral or positive views of Republicans. Our findings suggest that a considerable degree of support for climate policy amongst Democrats is driven by those with high levels of negative partisanship (e.g. the desire to defeat the goals of Republicans.)  

One promising finding is that the strength of partisan identity—what is often called expressive or positive partisanship—does not appear to have a strong association with climate policy preferences. That is, our results imply that a strong “Republican” identity can coexist with support for fossil fuel taxes or renewable energy taxes.

Interaction effect of partisan social identities by party affiliation for climate change policy support.

Furthermore, we find limited evidence of considerable partisan differences in willingness to engage in climate behaviors. While partisanship  shapes climate policy preferences, climate behaviors are more likely to be driven by other non-political factors (e.g. perceived costs, concerns, effectivity).  

In sum, our findings suggest that we should not assume that Republicans, as a whole, strongly resist climate change policy measures.  Rather, it is certain types of Republicans, those with more ‘negative’ social identities, that are more strongly resistant to climate change policies, while those with more ‘expressive’ identities can potentially be motivated towards support – particularly if climate-relevant policy measures are seen as being part of Republican ‘in-group’ goals.  For example, future climate change policy instruments could be developed in alignment with core conservative political values (e.g. incentivizing economic growth), and facilitating climate policy to be framed as a component of Republican social identity, garnering support from ‘expressive’ Republicans.

 Yet a potentially troubling finding of our work is that a portion of Democrats are motivated to support climate policy because of their negative animus towards Republicans, or desire to defeat Republican policy objectives. Although more work is needed, it is possible that support for climate policy among these Democrats is more brittle than Democrats with a less negative identity.

Negative partisanship poses a significant barrier towards developing effective climate governance. Accordingly, it is crucial for future research is to figure out how to reduce the power of negative partisanship among Republicans inhibiting necessary climate action and how to find new motivations for negative Democrats. A recent hopeful finding is that negative partisanship is not as prevalent as ‘expressive’ partisanship. Identifying sources of intra-party divergences can help isolate pathways for broader policy coalitions. Indeed, shifting political discourse away from the loudest voices in the room and towards common areas of consensus would benefit a broad range of policy domains. Although the challenge is great, much more work is needed to understand and mitigate negative partisanship. 

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