Science says Americans treat political parties like football teams regardless of their actual beliefs
Young Donald Trump supporters. Image via AFP.

The politics that divide Americans has more to do with sports than it does with complex political issues, a new study revealed.


According to reporter Zaid Jilani, writing for The Intercept, Americans are more motivated by labels or "teams" like "liberal" and "conservative" as if they are wearing a football jersey. When it comes to the specifics like marriage equality, women's rights or immigration, the teams are a little fuzzy.

Professor Lilliana Mason at the University of Maryland outlined in her paper “Ideologues Without Issues: the Polarizing Consequences of Ideological Identities," how Americans are becoming increasingly politically polarized.

Using 2016 data from Survey Sampling International and American National Election Studies, Mason found that political identities were more predictable than preferences on social interaction. Essentially, if one identifies as liberal, they are more likely to live next to other liberals. However, on issues, if someone is more likely to oppose an issue like abortion, not so.

“The effect of issue-based ideology is less than half the size of identity-based ideology in each element of social distance," she wrote. "These are sizable and significant effects, robust to controls for issue-based ideology, and they demonstrate that Americans are dividing themselves socially on the basis of whether they call themselves liberal or conservative, independent of their actual policy differences.”

She told Jilani that there have been debates among political scientists about whether the American public is actually polarized.

“I’m sort of making this argument that as you have multiple social identities that line up together, people hate their out groups more regardless of their policy positions,” she said.

She went on to explain that those who identify as strongly conservative, even if they have more left-leaning or right-leaning positions, they dislike liberals more than people who are soft on their "conservative" label.

A recent Gallup poll revealed intermarrying along party lines is quickly declining. For those who have strong opinions about equality and women's rights, marrying someone with strong opinions against can seem like a very personal attack on one's values.

Mason fears such a finding could ultimately make democracy more difficult. For example, if a political candidate simply attacks the other side, they're not going to move people one way or the other. Discussing issues can move soft conservatives to the center and vice versa. She suggested more people talking to their neighbors and those living around them about issues.

“The fact that even this thing’s that supposed to be about reason and thoughtfulness and what we want the government to do, the fact that even that is largely identity-powered, that’s a problem for debate and compromise and the basic functioning of democratic government," Mason said. "Because even if our policy attitudes are not actually about what we want the government to do but instead about who wins, then nobody cares what actually happens in the government,. We just care about who’s winning in a given day. And that’s a really dangerous thing for trying to run a democratic government.”

Read the full report at the Intercept.