Department of Political and Social Sciences

Andres Reiljan on affective polarization in multiparty systems

Every year, about 30 researchers defend their PhD theses in the SPS Department. In order to illustrate the range of their research, each month the department selects and presents a dissertation notable for both its exceptionally high quality and general interest to the public.

04/05/2021 | News - Research

Political polarization is a widely discussed topic in academic and public debate, but the actual substance of the concept is rather unclear. During the last decade, an increasing number of researchers in the United States have started to define polarization based on how people feel about political parties, pointing out that American voters have become much more negative towards the opposing party since the 1980s. The feelings between Democrats and Republicans have been described as ’fear and loathing’, and this mutual hostility is being associated with consequences as dire as democratic backsliding and political violence. This phenomenon of liking one’s own party while exhibiting negative feelings towards the other party/parties has been termed as affective polarization. Hitherto, our knowledge of affective polarization is predominantly US-centric.

This thesis aims to broaden the scope of this research and argues that the level of affective polarization in the United States is actually not remarkably high compared to other countries.

To compare the levels of affective polarization across countries and over time, Andres elaborates on the concept and introduces a novel measure – Affective Polarization Index (API). API relies on people’s like-dislike evaluations of parties and also accounts for party size. This allows for meaningful comparisons across countries that, unlike the United States, have more than two important political parties.

The results indicate that affective polarization in the United States is quite average in comparative perspective, being exceeded by a number of democracies in Central Eastern and Southern Europe, Southern America, Oceania and Africa. The most affectively polarized country among the ones that were studied is Turkey. Affective polarization in Western European countries, on the other hand, tends to be somewhat less intense. The least affectively polarized places are The Netherlands, Southeast Asia and the Nordic countries.

In addition to the comparative results, the thesis also advances our understanding of the potential underlying foundations of affective polarization. In current literature, the central debate revolves around whether feelings towards parties are rather determined by ideological considerations or group identities. Andres’s thesis gives stronger support to the former approach, as ideologically more polarized individuals and countries are also more intense regarding affective feelings towards parties. Yet, the findings clearly establish that ideological and affective polarization are distinct concepts that have only partial overlap. The results indicate that – regardless of the level of ideological polarization - countries with ineffective corrupt governments and ethnically more heterogenous populations are affectively more polarized.

The thesis also addresses the overwhelming loathing towards right-populist parties that is evident in many democracies. The results from Sweden demonstrate that these feelings do have ideological underpinnings, but the mainstream/populist hostility goes even further than just political disagreement. People who trust the political institutions of the country tend to be especially negative towards the right-populist party, whereas among populist voters this relationship is reversed. This most likely relates to the anti-elitist rhetoric utilized by the populist politicians.

Overall, Andres’s thesis suggests that we should look beyond the ideological and identitarian approaches, as affective polarization could be a result of a complex interplay of rational reasoning and tribalist impulses, which are likely to mutually reinforce each other.

Check out the permanent link in Cadmus:

Andres Reiljan defended his PhD on 22 April 2021. He holds a BA in Government & Politics and an MA in Comparative Politics (both University of Tartu, Estonia). His work has been published in journals such as European Journal of Political Research, Party Politics and Scandinavian Political Studies. In July 2021, Andres will start a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Tartu.

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