The Psychology of Partisanship

November 17, 2018

It’s not difficult to see the overwhelmingly partisan political environment in the United States. Inflammatory rhetoric, extreme political views, and the lack of bipartisanship in Washington have caused a polarizing shift in the U.S. electorate. One question that could be asked regarding this phenomenon is whether or not people themselves are becoming more partisan on political issues, or if it is the politicians and media that are causing this shift.

A study conducted by university researchers in New Zealand, found that voters' pre-existing opinions were more likely to shift if they did not agree with positions espoused by the political party they identified with. While New Zealand is not the same as the United States, the study provides a good look into the psychology of politics and partisanship.

The researchers analyzed two census-led surveys (New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey) from both 2013 and 2016 which had a sample of size of 12,182 and 13,561 respectively. The survey had questions that identified each respondent as either a National Party or Labour Party voter, as they are the two dominant parties in New Zealand politics.

Current Flag of New Zealand
Proposed flag in the referendum

The study primarily focused on how people’s opinions shifted regarding the issue of changing the New Zealand flag design. The question, which was the same in both surveys, was “Should the design of the New Zealand flag be changed?”. In 2015, however, a referendum was placed on the ballot that asked voters whether or not the New Zealand flag should be changed to a new design. This referendum received much media attention in New Zealand because the flag change was pushed by the sitting governor (National) and opposed by the leader of the opposition party (Labour).

Because the survey in 2016 retained many the same respondents from 2013, the researchers were able to see how voters opinion on the flag issue changed over time. The researchers found that about a quarter of voters from each party changed their opinion about the flag issue. However, the voters only changed their opinion if their stance opposed the party stance that they identified with.

This study serves as a great insight into the how political parties influence the views of their voters. From the results, the question of whether or not voters formulate their own political views is left unanswered. In the United States, for example, climate change policy has fallen into party lines. The Republican Party's platform rejects United Nations' stance on climate change, while the Democratic Party aims to introduce policies to combat its effects. However, did Republican voters originally reject climate change, or did the Republican Party platform influence Republican voters to change their stance?

Further research into the psychology of partisanship should focus on tangible issues that could have a real effect on voters. While the flag issue provided ample evidence, the change in flag design has little effect on the daily lives of New Zealanders.

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