Brown University

On Polarization and Patriotism: Chasms in American Democracy by Dakota Fenn @ Brown University

In this post, I hope to accomplish two related but separate goals. First, I’ll show you why political polarization is a viable threat to democracy. Second, using data from Bright Line Watch surveys, I want to offer a potential mechanism of resistance to the threat posed by polarization in the US today.

So you don’t think polarization matters? Let’s talk Roy Moore

How can we tell that polarization is negatively affecting US democracy? Let’s take a look a the special senate election in Alabama between Roy Moore (R) and Doug Jones (D).

Allegations of sexual assault leveled against Moore, the Republican candidate, caused a brief period of condemnation from his own party. However, within a couple of weeks, the GOP reversed its tone. The RNC resumed financing Moore’s campaign. Perhaps more strikingly, President Trump endorsed Moore and tweeted, “LAST thing the Make America Great Again Agenda needs is a Liberal Democrat in Senate where we have so little margin for victory already.”

Here’s the fact of the matter: Trump is actually right. The LAST thing the Republican Party could afford was a Democratic victory in Alabama. With a slim 52-48 majority in the Senate and schisms in the party, a Democrat in Alabama heavily challenges the GOP agenda.

Let me be clear: I do not intend to paint the GOP as the only polarized party. Both Republicans and Democrats are more politically divided than at any point in recent history, evidenced by data from the Pew Research Center. Slightly more Republicans have strongly negative feelings towards Democrats. However in 2014 38% of Democrats viewed the GOP very unfavorably compared with 43% of Republicans. That’s not an incredibly striking difference at the margins.

And it’s likely that both Democrats and Republicans will become more polarized as time moves forward. In Cass Sunstein’s study of group polarization, people’s views became more extreme when they conversed with likeminded individuals. Data reveals that more ideological American citizens are farther insulated within their respective “bubbles.” Combining Sunstein’s theory with the data showing increasing large echo chambers we can only expect greater levels of polarization in the near future.

The case of Roy Moore crystalizes the threat of polarization clearly. Almost half of Alabama voters cast their ballots for Moore despite credible allegations of sexual assault leveled against him by numerous women. It seems that political polarization made a reprehensible candidate palatable-and if it can do that, why can’t it make democratic erosion palatable as well?

Milan Svolik shows us that a polarized population places an importance on its values over democracy. Yes, some Roy Moore voters deny the allegations vehemently. But if there are any who would rather elect an alleged molester than face diminished legislative success, it’s not a great leap to think that the same group of people would also be willing to use undemocratic means to accomplish its goals. And again, if placed in a similar situation, it’s possible to imagine the Democratic Party taking similar steps to retain a slim majority.

Where’s the hope? It could actually be patriotism

 We talk a lot about democratic culture in the US. What does that really mean though, and how can it protect our democratic institutions? I suggest understanding democratic culture as linked to patriotism.

Patriotism, support for one’s country, can be used as a predictor for the political culture held by the citizenry. So how does patriotism in the US relate to views on democratic institutions and values?

To answer these questions, I turned to a dataset collected by Bright Line Watch. The organization has amassed an impressive dataset from surveys conducted with the American public at different points throughout the past year.

I tackled the data to try and identify relationships between patriotism and democratic institutions and values like equal rights, free speech, voting rights, and free press. The surveyors asked participants to rate the level of importance they placed on candidates displaying a certain quality (patriotism, respect for freedom of the press, respect for judicial independence, etc.).

To determine how people felt about patriotism in relation to various dimensions of democracy, I examined how correlated ratings of patriotism were with ratings of democratic variables. The results were somewhat expected, though still noteworthy.

Responses on the importance of patriotism are positively correlated with responses on the importance of journalists, free speech, judicial independence, and even democracy itself. It seems that patriotism in America still relates in some way, shape, or form, to democratic values and institutions.

Why do we care about patriotism and its relationship to democracy? Great question. I believe that this data shows us that patriotism remains a viable roadblock to substantial democratic erosion in the United States. Although we cannot see from this data whether or not patriotism used to be more tightly linked with democracy, we can find support for linkage to some degree today.

We often hear talk of a democratic culture that exists in the United States. This data would appear to support that theory, and lend credibility to those who trust a culture of democracy to carry the US through troubled times of polarization. While this is by no means a complete and thorough analysis, and there is evidence to suggest that democratic culture is eroding as well. However, for the time being it seems that Americans continue to include democratic values under the umbrella of patriotism.

In addition to a roadblock to democratic erosion, patriotism may be a potential weapon. Politicians who ascribe to democratic norms could weave in rhetoric to tie American patriotism to democracy itself. Rather than countering “America First” narratives with traditional cosmopolitan or liberal viewpoints, there could be applications for patriotism by those seeking to combat democratic erosion in the US.


  1. Thomas Baumgarten

    February 15, 2018 at 12:23 am

    I disagree with your diagnosis that the polarized ideological values of the voters nearly led to Roy Moore being elected. As Philip Converse writes in “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Politics”, roughly 15% of voters can accurately identify and conceptualize ideologies as the fit on the liberal-conservative spectrum. So, if one were to ask voters in Alabama why they voted for Roy Moore or Doug Jones, their answer is not likely to contain shared ideological values. They can classify themselves as liberal, moderate, or conservative, but few of them will actually share all the values of these ideologies.

    This means that most voters did not use ideological values to cast their votes, but something else. The most likely explanation is that they used their social identities to vote. Social identity theory (1) posits the strength of group memberships can lead to a strong ingroup favoritism and outgroup derogation. Those who identify as conservative vote for the candidate that shares that identity. The same goes for liberals. This is evidenced in a Washington Post exit poll (2) that shows that 86% of the people who identified as liberal voted for Doug Jones, and 83% of the conservatives voted for Roy Moore. This relationship for voting with your social identity is even stronger with party ID. The poll shows that 98% of Democrats voted for Doug Jones, while 91% of Republicans voted for Roy Moore. Given that only 2% of Democrats and 9% of Republicans voted for a candidate not in their party, this shows how rare it is to vote for someone of a different social identity.

    Since most people cannot accurately conceptualize liberal and conservative ideological values, I believe that blindly following our social identities is more likely to lead to compliance with undemocratic means in the future.

    1. Dakota Fenn

      February 15, 2018 at 6:23 pm

      I think you make a great point about the impact of social identity on the election in question, and in more general terms as well. I have a couple of responses to your comments.
      1. I find the data collected by the Pew Research Center (which I linked to this article) convincing in regard to the increased linkage between ideological values and political leanings. Whether or not this impacted the Alabama election is, as you point out, up for debate. I remain convinced that it is a threat to democracy writ large.
      2. While it might be a stretch, I think that there is an intersection between the values I posit affected the election and social identity theory. In my opinion, the political polarization in the US has created a value of partisanship such that people will place a priority on that value over democracy itself. Now, this is not obviously ideological in the way that we typically understand party platforms, but it seems to me that it could provide a convergence point for some of the observations we share. Namely, that choosing something we value (either ideological issues or perhaps party identity) over democracy has the potential to lead to democratic erosion.

  2. Garrett Rethman

    February 16, 2018 at 3:31 am

    Both data and contemporary examples such as the Alabama special Senate election certainly indicate that increased political polarization poses a threat to American democracy. The assessment “that Democrats and Republicans will become more polarized as time moves forward” appears to be true for the time being, with mainstream news channels such as CNN and Fox News championing opposing parties and slamming each other in their recent articles.
    Additionally, the democratic culture of the nation is likely to help insulate the country from the loss of democratic institutions. In this instance, the democratic culture likely prevents potential authoritarians from taking actions which would hurt the core institutions, as doing so could undermine their authority. On the other hand, while the idea of patriotism as a weapon against the populist “America First” narrative seems compelling, the exclusionary nature of populism could leave patriotism ineffectual as a tool when trying to combat a populist movement.
    Following Jan-Werner Muller’s assessment of populism from “What is Populism?”, populism can be seen as an exclusionary form of identity politics where a portion of the people at large are identified as “the real people” who have the moral authority to govern a country. The populist leader and the leader’s supporters thus see themselves as the only legitimate governing figures in a nation. They are then unlikely to cooperate with an argument such as patriotism used against the populist movement. After all, the populists already see themselves as “true” patriots, supporting the “will of the nation.” For this reason, it seems unlikely that patriotic appeals from the “out group” would be likely to penetrate the moral consciousness of the populist movement.

  3. Evelyn Kennedy

    February 17, 2018 at 1:21 am

    Your analysis offers patriotism as a potential solution to the problem of democratic erosion caused specifically by polarization. In looking at your cited examples from the Pew Research Center as well as your analysis of the Bright Line Watch dataset, I agree that partisan divides may possibly be weakened by finding common ground in broader democratic ideals. It makes sense that a way to begin conversations of compromise is to find common ground rather than issues where your views vastly differ. However, I would caution that the support for democratic ideals that you have outlined as “patriotism” must not slip into the realm of populism. In his book, What Is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller illustrates how populist rhetoric can appear democratic in that candidates and parties claim they are for the people and represent common ideals. In actuality, they represent only specific groups within a population. The same democratic institutions that may contribute to patriotism, such as support for voting rights and free speech, could be campaigning mechanisms for a populist candidate attempting to garner support from members of society who feel as though their vote has not mattered or their voice has not been heard. Müller discusses how populism contributes to heightened disagreement between those who align with the candidate and those who do not. These ideals that “everyone” agrees upon may worsen the partisan divide that you discuss. Although considering democratic ideals that people agree upon may help reduce polarization, these ideals may further contribute to democratic erosion if they are adopted as populist aims.

    Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  4. Ethan Gruber

    February 17, 2018 at 1:51 am

    I disagree with your thesis that political polarization will lead to democratic erosion in the United States. While political polarization both within and between the Democratic and Republican parties negatively impacts the effectiveness of the United States government, it does not severely impact the stability of American democracy. No matter the level of polarization among the two parties, they still remain loyal oppositions to one another as described in Juan Linz’s and Alfred Stepan’s “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes.”
    The choice of most Republican voters to opt for a candidate under an accusation of sexual assault speaks greatly to the current state of the polarization of politics in the United States. One can conclude that very little will cause a member of the Republican party to vote for a Democrat and vice versa. But using Linz’s and Stepan’s criteria for a loyal opposition, both the Democratic and Republican parties still behave as a loyal opposition. While there might be minority sects of the parties that display semi-loyal or disloyal characteristics, both parties have broadly displayed the following characteristics constituting a loyal opposition:
    -the willingness to unconditionally surrender power
    – a rejection of violence
    -a rejection to appeal to armed forces to seize power
    -a rejection of a rhetoric of violence
    – a commitment to political processes
    – a willingness to assume responsibility for governance
    – a rejection of contact with disloyal opposition
    If Roy Moore, Mitch McConnell, or Chuck Schumer suddenly call for violence or refuse to surrender power then one can conclude that the polarization between the two parties has reached a breaking point. But, the United States government has not reached this point. Political polarization disrupts the legislative process but it has not diminished the strength of American democracy.

  5. Wesley Brock

    April 16, 2018 at 6:42 pm

    You say that patriotism correlates positively to things like freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and other values typically hailed as democratic. To that I would question the accuracy of these associations by people. What I am saying is that I think when people are asked if they think being a patriot means supporting free speech then they say yes because they expect that is the “right answer” in the abstract however, when asked to affirm it in a concrete way by their actions we do not see that. The reason I suspect this is because of a study done at the University of Kansas which showed that whether or not someone while support or employ “freedom of speech” is heavily influenced by preexisting attitudes on the subject matter. That is to say that the study found that if someone was racist they were far more likely to proffer “freedom of speech” in defense of another’s blantantly racist actions such as going on a workplace race rant but not so willing to extend freedom of speech protections to those who railed against police or authority figures. The study in question focused on race and racism as a predictor but we know how much American politics are tangled up in race. Furthermore it not a unjustified logical leap to say that the kind of process that leads one to warp an ideal when thinking about race could be employed with regard to political polarization. As Thomas (top comment) has already mentioned political affiliation behaves very much like racial identities do.

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