Priming Norms to Combat Affective Polarization

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 186199
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211073319
Priming Norms to Combat Affective
Kevin J. Mullinix
and Trent Lythgoe
The American public has affectively polarized such that partisans increasingly dislike the other side,and this may have
deleterious consequences for a representative democracy. Yet, efforts to reduce partisan hostility arrive at mixed
results. We propose a new approach that involves strategically priming civic norms with language tailored to a target
audience. We argue that emphasizing group-based civic norms that invoke an obligation to otherscan reduc e out-party
animus. We test this approach on an important subgroup: U.S. military service members. Lik e the broader American
public, service members have unfavorable feelings toward the opposing party, and these feelings appear to have become
more negative in recent years. We use a survey experiment to demonstrate that priming an obligation to others civic
norm attenuates affective polarization. Our study advances public opinion research on an understudied subgroup of the
population, but more importantly, the theoretical argument has implications for addressing polariz ation and partisan
discord among the mass public and other subgroups.
affective polarization, civic norms, partisanship, military, priming
While scholars debate the extent to which Americans are
divided in their policy opinions (Abramowitz 2010;
Fiorina et al. 2008), there is considerable evidence that the
mass public has affectivelypolarized such that partisans
increasingly dislike the other side(Abramowitz and
Webster 2016). A substantial literature analyzes the ori-
gins of affective polarization and its adverse consequences
(e.g., Iyengar et al. 2012;Iyengar et al. 2019;Rogowski
and Sutherland 2016). Affective partisan divisions lead to
prejudice against opposing partisans (Lelkes and
Westwood 2017) and can color apolitical decisions,
such as economic choices (McConnell et al. 2018)and
evaluations of university scholarship applications
(Iyengar and Westwood 2015). Further, there are broader
repercussions of partisan discord for governance in a
representative democracy. Levendusky (2017) suggests
that affective polarization makes governance more dif-
f‌icult(59), and Iyengar and Krupenkin (2018) assert that
the implications for political accountability are cause for
Research on tactics to depolarize the mass public has
mixed results. Some strategies fail to reduce affective
partisan divisions (e.g. Levendusky 2018), and other
efforts, though more successful, may not resonate with
particular subgroups. For example, Levendusky (2017)
uses national samples to demonstrate that priming a
common ingroup identity—“Americansnational identi-
ty”—attenuates affective polarization, but this approach
may not constrain partisan animus among individuals who
already have a heightened sense of American identity.
We offer and test a distinct theoretical approach rooted
in group-based civic norms that emphasize an obligation
to othersto address affective polarization. We argue that
priming civic norms, the shared set of expectations about
the citizens role in politics(Dalton 2008, 78), can
mitigate affective polarization, and this is particularly
effective when norms are tailored to a target audience and
invoke an obligation to others in the context of politics and
partisanship. Emphasizing civic norms reduces the effects
of partisan endorsements and increases willingness to
discuss politics with opposing partisans (Mullinix 2018).
Heightening civic norms stimulates open-minded
Political Science, University of Kansas College of Liberal Arts and
Sciences, Lawrence, KS, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kevin J. Mullinix, Political Science, University of Kansas College of Liberal
Arts and Sciences, 1541 Lilac Ln, Lawrence, KS 66045, USA.

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