When Emotions Interfere with Politics: Affective Polarisation

published on 04 August 2021
Photo by <a href=Clay Banks on Unsplash"/>
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Political polarisation is not a novel phenomenon. From countries with biparty systems to multi-party systems, from developing states to advanced ones, we are living in an age where politics is extremely divided across the world. It almost feels like every country in the world is divided straight down the middle.

In recent decades, a new concept has emerged: affective polarisation. Individuals have become increasingly divided, not just in their political choices but also in their feelings about the opposing party and its leaders [1]. The current trends of political polarisation reveal that we now approach politics in a much more emotional manner and behave accordingly. Because political identity is voluntary rather than inherited, people are more likely to censure members of the outgroup for their identity, and are more comfortable discriminating against the perceived “others”[2].

In this first instalment of our polarisation blog posts, we will unpack how we became polarised based on our emotions and its consequences.

Understanding Affective Polarisation

In political science studies, affective polarisation is generally measured by the distance between levels of in-party love and out-party dislike [3]. It is driven by three main mechanisms: (1) social distance towards the other group, (2) political intolerance against opposing ideas, and (3) feelings of moral superiority [4]. What is more, it has created “negative partisanship”: Individuals now dislike the opposing party more than they like their own party [5].

Even though relevant research mainly focuses on the United States, partisan animus is quite common all around the world. By looking into nine OECD countries, researchers indicate that although the US is the leading country, the rest are not immune. Through their research, they find out that Canada, New Zealand, and Switzerland display similar patterns although to a lesser extent [6]. Similarly, it is found to be relevant in multi-party political settings by using data from 51 countries [7] and another study shows the presence of affective polarisation in 22 European countries [8].

Why does it happen?

To find the culprits of this phenomenon, scholars so far suggested a plethora of reasons. Different studies found that individual-level factors such as heightened partisan moral convictions [9], partisan extremism [10] and ideological tendencies [11] are particularly influential in fueling affective polarisation. That is to say that, people who tend to moralize politics and who are more fervent partisans, display more partisan bias and hostility towards the out-group.

Furthermore, elite polarisation [12], the tone of political campaigns [13] and elite incivility [14] are some of the drivers of partisan hostility caused by political actors. For instance, when political elites are more divided on their ideological positions or issue stances, and when they use a more hostile language in their electoral campaigns and overall political activities, the public is directly negatively affected.

Last but not least, access to a broadband internet connection [15], the emotional intensity of online media news [16] and the proliferation of partisan news outlets [17] are some of the other causes of this phenomenon.

Should we be worried about it?

As diverse as its causes, this type of polarisation has considerable repercussions on multiple grounds. By measuring it, scientists discover that almost every dimension of our lives is prone to its impact.

Studies show that it leads social relationships (especially marriages) to become more politically homogeneous, discourages having friends from the opposing party, and induces feelings of discomfort when an imaginary son/daughter-in-law belongs to the out-party [18].

Moreover, economic actions and transitions like buying, selling, accepting wages, and picking candidates from the labour market are directly influenced [19].

Partisan animus has dire implications for policy choices and citizen attitudes as well. A very recent study tests its effect on the COVID-19 pandemic and finds that affective polarisation directly shapes citizens’ attitudes and the actions they take in response [20].

Last but not least, affective polarisation reduces the efficacy of the government and political institutions. Heightened partisan animus and motivated reasoning distort the perceptions of the state of the economy and decrease trust in political actors, political institutions and politics itself [21]. As trust in the government is shaken, governing becomes more complex and politics becomes more hostile.

In the next instalment of our affective polarisation series, we will talk about the potential remedies for this new type of polarisation. Subscribe to our newsletter on our website or follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter if you’d like to be notified.


[1]Iyengar, S., & Westwood, S. J. (2015). Fear and loathing across party lines: New evidence on group polarization. American Journal of Political Science, 59(3), 690–707. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12152
[2]Iyengar and Westwood, 2015
[3]Iyengar and Westwood, 2015; Druckman, J. N., & Levendusky, M. S. (2019). What do we measure when we measure affective polarization? Public Opinion Quarterly, 83(1), 114–122. https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfz003
[4]Iyengar, S., Lelkes, Y., Levendusky, M., Malhotra, N., & Westwood, S. J. (2019). The origins and consequences of affective polarization in the United States. Annual Review of Political Science, 22(1), 129–146. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-051117-073034
[5]Abramowitz, A. I., & Webster, S. (2016). The rise of negative partisanship and the nationalization of U.S. elections in the 21st century. Electoral Studies, 41, 12–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2015.11.001
[6]Boxell, L., Gentzkow, M., & Shapiro, J. (2020). Cross-country trends in affective polarization. https://doi.org/10.3386/w26669
[7]Wagner, M. (2020). Affective polarization in multiparty systems. Electoral Studies, 102199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2020.102199
[8]Reiljan, A. (2019). ‘Fear and loathing across party lines’ (also) in Europe: Affective polarisation in European party systems. European Journal of Political Research, 59(2), 376–396. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6765.12351
[9]Garrett, K. N., & Bankert, A. (2018). The moral roots of partisan division: How moral conviction heightens affective polarization. British Journal of Political Science, 50(2), 621–640. https://doi.org/10.1017/s000712341700059x
[10]Luttig, M. D. (2017). Authoritarianism and affective polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly, 81(4), 866–895. https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfx023
[11]Webster, S. W., & Abramowitz, A. I. (2017). The ideological foundations of affective polarization in the U.S. electorate. American Politics Research, 45(4), 621–647. https://doi.org/10.1177/1532673x17703132
[12]Banda, K. K., & Cluverius, J. (2018). Elite polarization, party extremity, and affective polarization. Electoral Studies, 56, 90–101. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2018.09.009
[13]Iyengar, S., Sood, G., & Lelkes, Y. (2012). Affect, not ideology. Public Opinion Quarterly, 76(3), 405–431. https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfs038
[14]Gervais, B. T. (2018). Rousing the partisan combatant: Elite incivility, anger, and Antideliberative attitudes. Political Psychology, 40(3), 637–655. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12532
[15]Lelkes, Y., Sood, G., & Iyengar, S. (2015). The hostile audience: The effect of access to broadband internet on partisan affect. American Journal of Political Science, 61(1), 5–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12237
[16]Asker, D., & Dinas, E. (2019). Thinking fast and furious: Emotional intensity and opinion polarization in online media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 83(3), 487–509. https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfz042
[17]Lelkes, Y., Sood, G. and Iyengar, S. (2017), The Hostile Audience: The Effect of Access to Broadband Internet on Partisan Affect. American Journal of Political Science, 61: 5–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12237
[18]Iyenger et al., 2019
[19]McConnell, C., Margalit, Y., Malhotra, N., & Levendusky, M. (2017). The economic consequences of partisanship in a polarized era. American Journal of Political Science, 62(1), 5–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12330
[20]Druckman, J. N., Klar, S., Krupnikov, Y., Levendusky, M., & Ryan, J. B. (2020). Affective polarization, local contexts and public opinion in America. Nature Human Behaviour, 5(1), 28–38. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-01012-5
[21]Iyenger et al., 2019

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