Dissertation Project

A significant increase in polarization between Democrats and Republicans threatens the American political system. Interest in the decline of civility and trust between political groups, given its consequences (increased chance of gridlock, unwillingness to compromise or vote across party lines, fragmentation of social groups), is growing among scholars and journalists alike, particularly after the 2016 election.

My dissertation explores the causes of intensified partisanship in the United States, its consequences for democratic governance and, in each case, the underlying psychological processes that explain them. I focus on how affective polarization interacts with outgroup stereotyping and selective attribution – the tendency for partisans to make positive attributions about ingroup behaviors and preferences, while dismissing and/or demonizing the same in the outparty. The primary purpose of this work is to highlight the challenges posed to democratic accountability by partisan polarization and the reduced capacity of partisans to interact productively with one another under it, and to explore potential avenues for attenuating partisan hostility.

In one dissertation paper, I show how citizens’ tendency to make negative attributions about the preferences of those from the other party (i.e. they assume incompetence, selfishness, bigotry, etc. best explain what the other side wants) help explain rising partisan animosity. The literature has thus far ignored the extent to which affective polarization is a function not just of changing perceptions about what each side wants, but beliefs about why those on the other side want what they do. Using experimental evidence, I show negative attributions impact outgroup affect more than perceived attitudinal dissimilarity, and that exposure to positive statements of motive attenuates hostility towards the outparty under the right conditions. Though this research suggests a novel approach towards reducing polarization, it also highlights the difficulty of doing so.

In a second paper, I argue that economic voting, typically thought of as one of the major determinants of vote choice, has weakened considerably in recent decades due to rising partisanship, a trend largely missed by scholars. Using a combination of observational and experimental data, I find evidence that as polarization grows, partisans are increasingly apt to a) misperceive the state of the economy in a manner consistent with their partisan leanings, and/or b) selectively attribute the state of the economy to luck or the efforts of other actors, again depending on the intensity of their partisan identity. I then show that partisans trade off between these two types of motivated reasoning depending on which requires the least mental effort in a given electoral context. These results demonstrate the further weakening of a linchpin of democratic accountability under heightened partisanship, and elucidate the psychological mechanisms that underpin this shift.

Peer-reviewed Journal Articles

“The Importance of Knowing What Goes with What: Reinterpreting the Evidence on Policy Attitude Stability” (with Gabriel S. Lenz and Shad Turney). Journal of Politics 81(1), 2019.

“The More You Know: Voter Heuristics and the Information Search” (with Rachel Bernhard). Political Behavior, 2018.

“The Effect of Mandatory Mail Ballot Elections in California” (with Gabrielle Elul and Jake Grumbach). Election Law Journal 16(3), 2017.

Under Review

“Malice and Stupidity: Outgroup Motive Attribution and Affective Polarization”.
Dissertation paper.

“Why Are American Cities Underpoliced? Constrained Politicians Respond to Myopic Voters.” (with Gabriel S. Lenz). Manuscript available by request.

“It’s No Longer the Economy, Stupid: Selective Perception and Attribution of Economic Outcomes”. Dissertation paper.

Working Papers

“Credit (and Blame) Where Due: Party Polarization and Attribution Errors”. Dissertation paper. Presented at MPSA 2018.

“Mailing In, Rolling Off: Effects of Convenience Voting on Down-ballot Participation”. Presented at MPSA 2019. Manuscript available by request.

“False Equivalence and Motivated Reasoning”. Manuscript available by request.