Self-Esteem and the Development of Partisan Identity

Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18x2kP7mZDqNMR/input 851556PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919851556Political Research QuarterlyWolak and Stapleton
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(3) 609 –622
Self-Esteem and the
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
Development of Partisan Identity
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919851556
Jennifer Wolak1 and Carey E. Stapleton1
Why do young people choose to identify with a political party? While existing accounts emphasize the importance of
political socialization, we propose that young people’s self-perceptions also influence the adoption of partisan identities.
Using survey data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, we show that self-esteem plays an important role
in the development of partisanship among young people, where those with higher self-esteem are more likely to
adopt a partisan identity than those with low self-esteem. Using responses from the 2012–2013 American National
Election Study, we further show that the effects of self-esteem are concentrated among young adults, promoting the
adoption of partisan identities during one’s impressionable years. By focusing on the inheritance of partisanship from
one’s parents, scholars have underestimated the importance of young people’s traits in influencing the development
of partisan identities.
partisanship, partisan identity, self-esteem, political socialization
Partisanship is at the heart of how people relate to poli-
it has also caught the attention of policymakers. In 1987,
tics. Our partisanship informs our views on policy issues,
the state of California launched “The State Task Force to
filters how we evaluate information about politicians, and
Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social
drives our choices on Election Day. Given the centrality
Responsibility,” guided by the idea that the cultivation of
of partisanship to political decision making, it is impor-
self-esteem serves the public interest. For those backing
tant to know its origins. Our traditional answer has been
the initiative, low self-esteem was thought to be the root
that most people take on the partisanship of their parents.
of many social problems, including involvement in crimi-
Through informal interactions with our families, we
nal activity, drug abuse, and underperformance in school.1
come to see ourselves in terms of a party affiliation
While psychologists have since shown that self-esteem’s
(Greenstein 1965; Jennings and Niemi 1974, 1981).
reach is not as extensive as once thought (Baumeister
Beyond the influence of home environments, campaigns
et al. 2003), high self-esteem remains a useful resource
and political experiences also cultivate the emergence of
for individuals.2
a party identity (i.e., Beck and Jennings 1991; Carmines,
Yet, in politics, some have argued that low levels of
McIver, and Stimson 1987; Gimpel, Lay, and Schuknecht
self-esteem is more important, where those with low
2003; Sears and Valentino 1997). Yet, in focusing on how
self-esteem engage in political life to help compensate
partisanship is inherited from our parents or acquired
for what is absent from their inner lives (Lasswell 1930).
from our environment, traditional narratives of political
We challenge this prediction, and instead propose that
socialization have arguably underestimated the impor-
those with high self-esteem are more likely to pursue a
tance of the traits of young people themselves in the pro-
party affiliation. Those with low self-esteem hold nega-
cess of their political development. By emphasizing the
tive views of themselves. Consumed with their own
external factors that shape partisanship, we imply that
dilemmas, they hold back from social pursuits. When
young people are merely passive recipients of partisan
they do engage, they worry about what others think of
messages. In this paper, we challenge this view, arguing
that heterogeneity in the dispositions of young people
helps explain the acquisition of party ties.
1University of Colorado, Boulder, USA
We investigate the effects of self-esteem in cultivating
Corresponding Author:
partisan attachments. Reflecting feelings of self-worth,
Jennifer Wolak, Department of Political Science, University of
self-esteem has been thought to be something to be
Colorado, 333 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309-0333, USA.
encouraged and developed (Lane 1982). Over the years,

Political Research Quarterly 73(3)
them and avoid making commitments. Because they lack
component, partisanship’s origins are instead acquired or
confidence in their capabilities, they tend to be less deci-
learned through political socialization (Alford, Funk, and
sive. In contrast to the defensiveness and avoidance of
Hibbing 2005; Hatemi et al. 2009). From a young age, we
those with low self-esteem, those high in self-esteem
start to develop affective attachments to political parties,
find social ties rewarding. They believe in themselves
following from the partisan views that are held by our
and their ability to master difficult situations. Those with
parents (Greenstein 1965). Through adolescence, parents
positive views of themselves have the confidence to
remain the primary influence on our party identification
engage in political life and to assert partisan views. We
(Jennings and Niemi 1974, 1981).
know that some avoid taking partisan sides out of wor-
Partisanship is distinctive among political orienta-
ries about how others will perceive them (Krupnikov and
tions in the degree to which parents direct the beliefs of
Klar 2016). We propose that self-esteem serves as a
their offspring. Young people are much more likely to
resource that helps people overcome these hurdles to
adopt the partisanship of their parents than they are to
express a partisan commitment.
share their perspectives on policy issues or other atti-
We focus on self-esteem’s effects among young peo-
tudes toward government (Jennings and Niemi 1974).
ple in particular. Because party identification is most
The transmission of party identification to young people
volatile and most vulnerable to change during late adoles-
succeeds in part because these are important views to
cence and early adulthood (Alwin and Krosnick 1991;
parents, and, therefore, more likely to be communicated
Sears and Valentino 1997; Stoker and Jennings 2008), we
to their children. Family environments are generally
expect that self-esteem will have its greatest effects in
important to the development of political identities and
cultivating a partisan identity among young people. We
beliefs in that we spend a lot of time with our families,
demonstrate the importance of self-esteem to partisan
with many opportunities for the informal transmission of
identity formation using two different data sets. Using
political views. We also tend to know our parents’ views
responses from the National Longitudinal Survey of
and trust their perspectives more so than those of friends
Youth, we first show that self-esteem is associated with
and acquaintances (Tedin 1980). As a result, other social-
both the adoption of a partisan identity as well as the
izing influences such as friends, teachers, and commu-
strength of that identification in a sample of young adults.
nity leaders are thought to play only a minimal role in
Second, we use a nationally representative sample of
shaping young people’s party affiliations (Jennings and
adults using the 2013 panel of the American National
Niemi 1974).
Election Study to explore whether the effects of self-
While our traditional explanations for partisanship’s
esteem are distinctive to young people. Because the
origins emphasize socialization by parents, the transmis-
effects of self-esteem are greater for younger respondents
sion of party identification from parents to offspring is far
than for older respondents, our results suggest that self-
from perfect. Only 60 percent of Americans report that
esteem is particularly important to the decision to adopt a
they grew up in households where their parents shared the
party attachment.
same partisanship (Lewis-Beck et al. 2008). In these
In our focus on self-esteem’s effects, we hope to shed
households, transmission rates are high but imperfect,
light on the origins of partisanship as a social identity
where about 65 percent adopt the same partisanship as
(Green, Palmquist, and Schickler 2002; Greene 1999,
their parents (Jennings and Niemi 1974).3 Among those
2004; Groenendyk 2013; Huddy, Mason, and Aarøe
who fail to receive consistent partisan cues from their
2015). Rather than thinking of partisanship as something
parents, people seem about as likely to affiliate with a
simply learned from our parents, we consider why people
political party as they are to call themselves indepen-
choose to adopt this identity. We propose that party iden-
dents. For those in households with parents who were
tification is both more desirable and more accessible for
independents or not on the same partisan page, about 17
those who hold a positive self-conception. In considering
percent see themselves as independents, 34 percent iden-
how self-esteem encourages people to connect to a politi-
tify as independents who lean toward one of the parties,
cal party, we move beyond instrumental accounts that

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT