Q&A with government professor Sean Westwood

by Grace Stillwell | 10/17/17 2:00am

Government and quantitative social science professor Sean Westwood specializes in political partisanship and representation. According to Westwood, he examines the impact of legislator action and partisanship on individual behavior. Westwood is the lead researcher in a recent paper on affective polarization in the U.S., in which he found that those with similar political ideologies were more likely to trust each other than those who had differing ones. He found that this dichotomy was even stronger than that between people with different racial backgrounds.

When did you first become interested in government and quantitative social science, and what was your journey from there?

SW: I originally wanted to be a computer scientist, and I taught myself to code as a kid, but when I got to college and took my very first computer science class, I realized it was going to be immensely frustrating to get through all these courses covering content that I had already been exposed to. Then I tried to look at other things I found interesting and was attracted to government. Even though I had more of a vision of becoming a computer scientist, I think in the end I am using those skills to answer social science questions, so I have been able to bridge my mathematical interests with substantive interests I have. In the end, I think I am actually very lucky.

What motivated you to work on research on the relationship between shared political identity and trust?

SW: I think part of it is just trying to figure out how it is that Americans can have such hostility toward members of the opposing political party given that they don’t really know much about what that political party stands for. It has been kind of a puzzle in political science. How is it that we think American voters are at the same time completely uninformed and also extremely polarized? There has to be something that’s driving that polarization other than familiarity with facts with policy and with proposals of policy, so trying to address that gap I think was really the birth of the research on affective polarization. For me personally, I was just really interested in how partisan animosity has turned into such a present force in everyday life.

What conclusions can you draw from the experiment, and were you surprised by what you found?

SW: I think there are a couple of things we can take home from this experiment and from other experiments that I have done. So this particular paper had four experiments in it. The takes are essentially, first, that average Americans are very hostile toward the political opposition and very positive toward members of their political party. And that isn’t just something they’ll say on a questionnaire, but it’s deeply ingrained in their subconscious. If you give people tasks that are designed to measure just direct subconscious thoughts, political animosity is pretty significant across average Americans. The second thing is that on average, Americans are more willing to discriminate against partisans than they are willing to discriminate against those who are of a different race. I think it’s important to put a bit of an asterisk by that because that doesn’t mean that racial discrimination isn’t bad or that on its extremes it isn’t worse than partisanship, it’s just that more people on average are willing to discriminate along partisan lines than along racial lines. Although Americans are more biased in terms of partisanship than in race, it’s certainly the case that racial violence is real whereas partisan violence is really rare. The third thing is that this actually blurs over into apolitical behavior. That is to say that if you’re assessing someone for a job or if you’re assessing a student for a scholarship, if that student indicates that he or she was a member of the young Democrats or the young Republicans, that little bit of information is going to be more important in your decision to hire or to give a scholarship than their GPA or other groups that they may have belonged to. People are making decisions that are objectively not political with political information. The fourth thing is that people are actually willing to put their money where their mouth is. It’s not that they are just saying, “I don’t like Democrats” or “I don’t like Republicans.” If they’re put in the scenario where there is an actual dollar payout that’s put at risk by trusting a Democrat or by trusting a Republican, they’ll behave in ways that suggest their willingness to discriminate actually has effects when it comes to costly task or costly outcomes — it’s pretty depressing actually.

Why do you think people are so hostile to people of the opposing political party?

SW: Safeguards just don’t exist in politics. If you turn on cable news, you are going to see someone shouting about the other political party. They’re either socialists, or they’re fascists or they’re communists or they’re Nazis. In politics we’ve more or less designed it to be hostile. Politics have changed recently and we’re in what a lot of people call “permanent campaign.” Because of that, we then have this campaign sniping that’s going on more or less in perpetuity. We also have cable news that has to fill 24 hours a day, and it’s really easy to fill time when you have people arguing with one another. And we have also created a situation where you can opt in to content that aligns with your ideology. If you’re a Democrat, you can watch MSNBC. If you’re a Republican, you can watch Fox News. And if you don’t care, you can watch the E! network, so that means political information is not reaching the masses and when it is reaching the masses, a lot of people are only getting content that aligns with their ideology. We see these things as coming together and creating our current state.

Are you working on any projects currently?

SW: There is some good news. In another project, I tried to look at just how bad affective polarization is in terms of a source of prejudice. There is a taxonomy that was developed in the 1950s by a man named Gordon Allport. He suggests there are different levels of prejudice so you can say hostile things. For example, you could avoid interacting with the opposing group, or you can actually engage in acts of discrimination. Finally, at the top of his scale is outright extermination. We were wondering just how bad polarization is in the U.S. Through a series of experiments we found that, yes, it’s certainly the case that people are willing to say nasty things. They’re certainly willing to avoid contact with the out group, but when it actually comes to discrimination, they’re really more interested in helping those who are like them than in hurting those who are not like them. So if you look at affective polarization it doesn’t necessarily tell you the full story. It is certainly the case that we have biased responses toward those who are like us and biased responses towards those who are not like us, but the biggest effect is that we try to give a bump to those who are like us. It’s not that we are trying to take away from those who are not like us. It’s a bit of good news, but more importantly those studies were conducted in 2014, and we thought given what’s going on now that perhaps our results might have been too optimistic, so over the summer I replicated them and almost nothing has changed. The good news is that we’re at perhaps maximum affective polarization, which objectively doesn’t sound like good news because it’s a terrible state for American democracy, but I think it suggests that the American public aren’t following our political leaders to extremes, or, put another way, perhaps we’ve reached a point where leaders can no longer take us that much further.

What is the greatest problem our government faces right now?

SW: I don’t think affective polarization is the biggest problem affecting our government. At the elite level, I think the problem is just simply that we’re not governing. We’re engaged in in-fighting, we’re engaged in petty fights over legislation that will never pass or we’re engaged in constant obstructionism. I think our biggest problem at the national level is just simply that our government isn’t functioning well, which I think could lead to affective polarization, or it could potentially be a response to affective polarization because it could be the case that representatives see that their constituents are really mad and angry and are trying to mimic that in Congress, but I don’t think it’s the problem that we are in most need of addressing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Correction Appended (Oct. 17, 2017):

The Oct. 17, 2017 article "Q&A with government professor Sean Westwood" was updated to correct misspellings of "affective polarization."

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