Partisanship as Identity: The Hype, the Myth, and the Reality of Polarization in the American Electorate

Mark D Stinson, University of Texas at El Paso


This work examines the existence and extent of polarization in the American electorate as a contemporary phenomenon based in hyper-partisan or “tribal” identity rather than as arising out of a more conventional ideological framework. This approach allows for the bypassing of more conventional questions such as the meaning of “liberal” or “conservative” or “in virtue of what is someone a liberal/conservative?”, and instead allows acceptance of a respondent’s ideological or partisan self-identification as a convenient label which does not require a monolithic set of political beliefs for its basis, although the prior or subsequent adoption of such a set of beliefs is not precluded. This framework’s major advantage is its parsimonious explanation of the contemporary American political environment, especially at the macropolitical level. It includes a contribution to the literature through the development of ideological and partisan indicators based in attitudes rather than issue preferences and proposes improvements to the currently used methods of placing and determining ideological attitudes. It cannot resolve the differences between approaches such as behavioralism and institutionalism as the act of adopting an identity is an individual behavior per se, which occurs within an institutional setting that limits the set of policies which can be preferred and the set of identities which can be adopted or ascribed. It does, however, allow these disparate approaches to coexist. This framework is in many ways an a priori construct and should be viewed as a broad outline for future work rather than a complete theoretical model. It defines critical terms and concepts, examines arguments for and critiques of ideologically grounded explanations before outlining and demonstrating the partisan identity framework. It uses survey data from ANES and other sources to compare the explanatory power of the differing approaches, discusses the implications of those analyses, identifies unanswered questions, outlines the direction of future inquiry, and concludes.

Subject Area

Political science|Organizational behavior|Social research

Recommended Citation

Stinson, Mark D, "Partisanship as Identity: The Hype, the Myth, and the Reality of Polarization in the American Electorate" (2019). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI13884244.