Watching the Democratic and Republican Party conventions created a lot of discussion in our house. It started with a quip my nine-year-old son made as he walked into the room during one of the conventions: “Why would anyone ever vote for ___? They must be stupid.” This was followed by a long conversation after dinner when my two older kids asked, “What is the difference between Democrats and Republicans?” They wanted to know, in part, because our extended family includes both strong Republicans and strong Democrats. How could people they love so much have such different views?
It isn’t easy to navigate partisan differences. One reason is explained by social identity theory, which states that our sense of self is based, in part, on the groups we belong to. These groups can be based on anything – occupation, race, religion or even being an alumnus of Wittenberg. Since our self-image is based on group identity, we maintain a positive sense of self by elevating our in-groups (i.e., Wittenberg is the best!). On the flip side, we can boost ourselves by belittling out-groups (i.e., People are stupid to go to another school!). And it doesn’t take much for us to exhibit in-group and out-group biases. Psychologists have found that even when groups are created by meaningless distinctions, like T-shirt color, social identities form and trigger favoritism for “us” and discrimination against “them.” Thus, when we focus on party affiliation or support for presidential candidates, we see ourselves as part of a social group that defines our social identity.
As a political science professor, I am used to navigating a classroom filled with students who come from a variety of political backgrounds. I work hard to keep students guessing about my party affiliation. In a way, I am working to keep party affiliation out of my social identity as a professor. But when I am with my family, I want to have a partisan identity. My wife, Cathy, and I want to teach our children the values and beliefs that matter to us – the values and beliefs that lead us to support one party over another.
In this age of increasing political polarization, it seems like we are constantly baited to justify our views by belittling out-groups. Negative advertisements abound and we often build comradery with those in our groups by sharing the latest scandal from the other side. The high disapproval ratings of both major party candidates will make negative advertising even more attractive this year. Perhaps this is behind the sharp increase in the number of people who disapprove of their children marrying someone from the opposite party. The focus on the negatives of others, however, has a societal cost – we lose sight of our common humanity.
Political disagreements will never go away. James Madison, in Federalist No. 10 of The Federalist Papers, argued that factions (or groups) are a natural consequence of liberty. We will always need to debate the proper use of government and its impact on people and society. But we can choose the way we engage in those debates.
So I enter the general election season keenly aware that my kids are listening. While I have a strong social identity to a particular party, I am reminded of the biases that come with that identity. I am reminded that I should strive to find a way to affirm my partisan identity while simultaneously affirming the humanity of those with whom I disagree. How else could I explain to my kids that people we love and respect plan to vote for the other party?