American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective

23 February 2022
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Book Review
Noam Gidron, James Adams, Will Horne: American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020

The extent of partisanship in the United States of America (USA) is not greater than in other high-income peer countries like the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, and New Zealand, and it's worse in Spain, Portugal, and Greece. The authors measure partisanship as the gap between how you view the party you support and the party you oppose, based on survey data going back to 1996. By this measure, partisanship in the USA has gotten worse faster than in other countries. 

The main drivers of partisanship are divides on cultural issues like immigration, abortion, and race. Levels of unemployment and inequality are also factors. While cultural issues drive partisanship, this has a positive side since the disputes arise because disadvantaged groups are getting more recognition and rights protected. The alternative would be continuing the suppression of these groups. The authors also find that moving from majority to proportional systems isn't a panacea for polarization. While the latter encourages populist radical parties, populist factions can still take over a major party in majority systems, as happened with Trump.

The authors point out many areas for future research to expand their findings. In addition to the many valuable areas they highlight, I would like to interrogate the conclusion that economic issues are less critical in driving partisanship. One reason not discussed here is that a narrative has been crafted starting in the USA and UK and then in other countries that government is the problem, and we need less of it and more private sector-like practices in the public sphere. This storyline supports the view that CEOs paid hundreds of times more than their other workers are worth the money and should continue their excellent work (and tax dodging). This is a self-serving narrative supported by elites and their minions. It's time for an alternative narrative and a more balanced storyline describing the close collaboration between business and government and how both have roles in building a just and prosperous society. Enterprises have become too focused on serving top managers and shareholders and need to support broader social values.

Finally, the continents of North and South America encompass a wide variety of countries, cultures, and languages. Therefore, the authors should know better than to use America as a synonym for the USA.

Clay Wescott, President, International Public Management Network and member of International Advisory Board at Centre for Governance Studies (CGS)