Affective Polarization and Support for the U.S. Supreme Court

Date01 June 2022
Published date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(2) 409 –424
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211006196
The American mass public largely support the U.S.
Supreme Court, even when it makes decisions with which
they disagree (Caldeira and Gibson 1992; Nelson and
Tucker, forthcoming; Tyler 2006). As Gibson (2007) dem-
onstrates, the Court has maintained its store of support,
even as many other aspects of politics have sharply polar-
ized. Although polarization influences other public per-
ceptions that may, in turn, influence the Court (e.g.,
believing the justices to be partisan), little evidence points
to drastic differences in views of the judiciary across dis-
parate political groups. And while there is some debate
about the role various political predispositions (e.g., ide-
ology) play in assessments of the Court (Bartels and
Johnston 2013; Gibson and Nelson 2015) and dynamics of
support may be changing over time (Rogowski and Stone,
forthcoming), historically, it has been “. . . reasonably well
established that institutional support for the U.S. Supreme
Court is not polarized along partisan and/or ideological
lines,” as Gibson and Nelson (2014, 208) note.
However, polarization is not an entirely ideological
affair. A burgeoning literature finds that, where only some
members of the mass public are ideologically polarized
(Rogowski and Sutherland 2016; Webster and Abramowitz
2017), many are polarized along affective (Iyengar,
Sood, and Lelkes 2012; Iyengar and Westwood 2015;
Mason 2015) and perceptual (Enders and Armaly 2019;
Levendusky and Malhotra 2016) grounds, which do not
require ideological sophistication or constraint. Thus, that
the traditional, ideological variant of polarization seems
not to influence attitudes toward the Court is not an alto-
gether surprising discovery. Here, we reconsider the
hypothesis that polarization fails to influence public eval-
uations of the Supreme Court, diverging from previous
studies by examining affective polarization. We argue that
affective polarization—Americans’ increasingly diver-
gent emotional orientations toward in- and out-groups—
influences attitudes toward the Supreme Court. Indeed,
affective polarization does not simply produce great dis-
dain of the out-group, its candidates, and policies. Rather,
its consequences extend to political stimuli unaffiliated
with either group, shaking confidence in government and
the political system, more generally. Simply put, there are
non-group consequences (e.g., for institutions) to group
politics. General political divisions can impact support for
the institutions that make democratic decisions.
To investigate this proposition, we first use (1)
American National Election Studies (ANES) Cumulative
1006196PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211006196Political Research QuarterlyArmaly and Enders
1The University of Mississippi, University, USA
2University of Louisville, KY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Miles T. Armaly, The University of Mississippi, 233 Deupree Hall,
University, MS 38677, USA.
Affective Polarization and Support
for the U.S. Supreme Court
Miles T. Armaly1 and Adam M. Enders2
Support for the U.S. Supreme Court does not appear to be polarized on ideological or partisan lines. However, the
form of polarization for which the mass political behavior field has amassed substantial support is affective in nature.
We reconsider the hypothesis that polarization does not bear on Court support by examining the role of affective
polarization. Using three sources of nationally representative survey data, we consistently find a negative relationship
between affective polarization and both diffuse and specific support for the Court. Moreover, neither general nor
Court-specific political sophistication mitigates the negative effect of affective polarization; rather, sophistication
exacerbates affective polarization’s influence on support. Finally, panel data show that affective polarization precedes
negative evaluations of the judiciary, though there is no support for the converse relationship. Evaluations of the
Court are not free from the forces of polarization but are influenced by diverging extra-judicial emotional orientations
toward in- and out-groups.
affective polarization, Supreme Court, legitimacy, support
410 Political Research Quarterly 75(2)
2 Political Research Quarterly 00(0)
File data from 1988 to 2016 and (2) the 2012 ANES time
series to examine individual-level relationships between
affective polarization and both diffuse support (or the
unwillingness to fundamentally alter the institution) and
specific support (or short-term reactions to the institution
and its outputs). We find that those reporting greater
levels of affective polarization feel the Court is less legit-
imate and express less immediate satisfaction. Then,
using data from the 2000–2004 ANES panel study,
we show that affective polarization in 2000 leads to
decreased support for the Supreme Court in 2004,
although no reciprocal effect is observed. Thus, affective
polarization seems to cause, or at the very least precede,
negative evaluations of the Supreme Court. Finally, we
consider whether knowledge of the Court or general
political sophistication condition the negative influence
of affective polarization, finding that neither knowledge
nor sophistication mitigates affective polarization’s neg-
ative effect. The Supreme Court seems to be impacted by
mass-level polarization.
These findings are important for several reasons. First,
integrating affective polarization into studies of the judi-
ciary is necessary to determine how the Court will fare in
a highly polarized environment. Although there is uncer-
tainty regarding mass ideological polarization (e.g.,
Abramowitz and Saunders 2008; Fiorina and Abrams
2008), the masses are polarized (Enders and Armaly
2019; Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes 2012). Should mass
polarization influence support for the Court—as we find
it does—researchers should consider the appropriate
forms of polarization. Relatedly, whether ideological dis-
agreement matters when it comes to public evaluations of
the Court remains unresolved (Bartels and Johnston
2013; Gibson and Nelson 2015). Contention about this
finding makes sense given the long-standing “ideological
innocence” of the American mass public (Kinder and
Kalmoe 2017), let alone low levels of knowledge about
the Court (Gibson and Caldeira 2009b). Affective polar-
ization, however, does not rely solely on ideological con-
cerns,1 but group-centric, emotional ones—the types of
orientations that even non-ideologues possess. It may,
therefore, provide a more justifiable link between mass
political orientations and Court support.
The final—and most normatively significant—impli-
cation of our findings is that, although the Court is gener-
ally seen as protected from political or hyperpartisan
strife (Gibson 2007), the wide and growing gulfs in
American politics may impact attitudes toward the judi-
ciary absent any behavior on the part of the justices them-
selves. When the Court’s reservoir of goodwill ebbs,
compliance with Court decisions may decrease (Gibson
and Caldeira 1995; Murphy and Tanenhaus 1968), and
Congress may be less willing to provide resources and
independence to the judiciary (Ura and Wohlfarth 2010).
In addition, if, as Baird (2001) suggests, repeated dis-
appointment with the institution ultimately leads to
decreased diffuse support, the relationship between affec-
tive polarization and specific support has long-run conse-
quences for institutional legitimacy. Even though latent
public support for the Court is generally a function of the
Court’s own traditions, rulings, and behaviors (Gibson,
Lodge, and Woodson 2014; Hoekstra 2003), we show
that levels of support are also a function of existing divi-
sions among the mass public that are not created by,
but reflect upon, the judiciary. If these divisions continue
to grow, support for the institution—and, subsequently,
compliance and independence—can decrease, even
though the Court’s rulings may not be controversial, its
procedures are perceived to be fair, and the traditionally
support-inducing judicial symbols are still prominent.
Mass Polarization and Perceptions of
the Court
By and large, the U.S. Supreme Court enjoys public sup-
port, at least when compared with other political institu-
tions. According to Gibson (2007), this support “has little
to do with ideology or partisanship.” This is, perhaps,
surprising given the existing and growing divisions in the
upper echelons of American politics (McCarty, Poole,
and Rosenthal 2006) and the way that elite polarization
translates to the mass public (Levendusky 2010). This is
not to say, however, that the Supreme Court is entirely
free from the consequences of increasing political polar-
ization. As Hasen (2019) notes, there are several ways
that ideologically driven elite polarization can influence
public attitudes toward the judiciary. For instance, nomi-
nations and confirmations are motivated by the desire to
appoint more extreme judges (see Devins and Baum
2017; Epstein et al. 2006). In addition, decisions on
salient cases frequently reflect the left–right split that
typifies other branches of government (Bartels 2015;
Devins and Baum 2017). While this elite polarization
may ultimately filter down to influence the average citi-
zen (Hasen 2019), the masses’ evaluations of the Court
seem relatively unfazed by such polarization among
elites (Gibson 2007).
Even though elite ideological polarization may (indi-
rectly) impact views of the judiciary, the masses are not,
themselves, particularly polarized on policy grounds. The
form of mass polarization for which there is broad con-
sensus is affective in nature. Thus, it is perhaps sensible
to find little relationship between ideological polarization
and public support for the judiciary. Mass polarization is
rooted in identity-based emotional responses to group
stimuli, as opposed to overarching, left–right orientations
(Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes 2012). Although members of
the mass public from across the political spectrum

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