IN TODAY’S rancorous political environment, one might be forgiven for thinking that voters everywhere are splitting into hostile tribes. In America, Republicans and Democrats have grown to loathe each other so much that the best predictor of whether housemates will get on is which way they voted. But new research suggests that this trend of increasing polarisation is not universal. In some Western countries, antipathy between opposing parties seems to have declined in the long run.
In a new paper, Levi Boxell and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University, and Jesse Shapiro of Brown University have quantified America’s rising tribalism. The authors looked at a question from the American National Election Studies (ANES), a biannual survey by the University of Michigan, in which respondents are asked to rate supporters of various parties on a “feeling thermometer” scale from 0 to 100 degrees. They found that in 1978 Americans felt 27 degrees colder, on average, towards voters from opposing parties;by2016, that gap had widened to 46 degrees.
The authors also analysed surveys conducted in other Western countries, which ask respondents about their attitudes towards other parties (rather than other voters). They found that, like America, Canada and Switzerland have experienced an upward trend in polarisation. But in Australia and New Zealand, this sentiment has fluctuated. In Britain, it has been especially volatile, rising during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister, then falling during Tony Blair’s, then rising again under a series of Conservative governments. (Because the study only looks at sentiments between parties, it might have understated the divisions caused by Brexit, which cut across ideological lines.)
In some European countries polarisation has fallen over the long run. In Norway and Sweden, the divide between political parties was very wide in the 1980s, but less so by the 2010s. Germany has seen a similar downward trend in polarisation between 1977 and 2016 (due to insufficient data, the authors only looked at West Germany, where four-fifths of the population lives). To check whether the recent rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) in Sweden and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany has altered this trend, The Economist analysed surveys conducted by the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, in the two countries since 2016. Although Pew’s question differed slightly from the one used in the academic study, there was nevertheless no evidence that Swedish or German voters have grown more hostile to opposing parties. Most have remained circumspect.
So why has animosity increased in some countries and fallen in others? One factor could be animosity towards ethnic minorities. The authors found that, although the share of non-white residents has risen in all the countries in the study, it has increased twice as quickly in those which have also become less politically tolerant. Curiously, public spending on national broadcasting services also seems to matter. The countries in which polarisation fell had the highest public-service television budgets. The notion that a lack of reliable news might lead to more partisanship would hardly be surprising to most Americans. Fox News, the network favoured by President Donald Trump, launched in the 1990s, roughly when the upward trend in America’s polarisation began.