Does Affective Polarization Undermine Democratic Norms or Accountability? Maybe Not

Monday, April 10, 2023 (3:30 PM – 5:00 PM)

Joshua Kalla

Assistant Professor of Political Science
Yale University

Scholars warn that affective polarization undermines democratic norms and accountability. They speculate that if citizens were less affectively polarized, they would be less likely to endorse norm violations, overlook copartisan politicians’ shortcomings, oppose compromise, adopt their party’s views, or misperceive economic conditions. We advance reasons to doubt that affective polarization influences political choices. We support this argument with five experiments that manipulate citizens’ affective polarization with multiple approaches. We then trace the downstream consequences of manipulating citizens’ affective polarization, such as their reactions to information about their actual representatives in Congress. In our experiments (total N = 12,341), we “rewind” the equivalent of three decades of change in affective polarization but find no evidence that these changes influence many political outcomes, only general questions about interpersonal attitudes. Our results suggest caution when assuming that reducing affective polarization would meaningfully bolster democratic norms or accountability.

Joshua Kalla is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University with a secondary appointment in Statistics and Data Science. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2018. His research studies political persuasion, prejudice reduction, and decision-making among voters and political elites, primarily through the use of randomized field experiments.

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