Founding Member Speaker Series: Dr. Lilliana Mason

Unite America recently hosted  Dr. Lilliana Mason, assistant professor in the Department of Government and Politics at University of Maryland for our Founding Member speaker series. Dr. Mason specializes in party identity and social polarization, recently writing the book, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity as well as the article, “Ideologues without Issues: The Polarizing Consequences of Ideological Identities” published in Public Opinion Quarterly. Her discussion with Unite America covered topics such as intolerance between party members, group behavior, how individuals can start to bridge the partisan divide, and the singular role independents have in the political spectrum.

Dr. Mason began by stating that Democrats and Republicans have recently become more ideologically sorted, meaning they are divided based on labels such as conservative and liberal. The sorting and identification development often begins early in life and Dr. Mason mentioned that some of the earliest American politics research refers to politics being “learned at your mother’s knee.” Family and the surrounding community continue to enforce political identity as the social aspect of politics is what sparks psychological engagement, leading to a more pronounced dedication for one party.

While partisan identities and divisions have always been present, Dr. Mason noted that it has recently become worse because of the “increasing alignment between party identity and other social identities like race and religion.” The division is exacerbated as the country is witnessing “two parties that are becoming so socially distinct from one another that they don’t have a lot of what we call cross-cutting identities, things that can help you understand the people on the other side.” Without cross-cutting identities (cheering for the same football team, engaging in social activities together, etc.) that can be related to, discussed, or introduced in conversation, it is much more difficult to see the other side as human, thus perpetuating the distinct cultural and political divide.

As political identity fuses with other social identities, the association with, and dedication to, a particular party strengthens. Dr. Mason articulates that when there is the “chance for your party to win or lose, you kind of feel like your racial or religious group is also winning or losing along with the party.” This results in a strong antipathy for compromise and a dislike for transcending policy differences. While being included in a group fulfills human needs, the antipathy for “the other” is rising to new levels. Individuals are now less willing to live next door to, to become friends with, to marry, or to want their children to marry an individual from the other political party. Parties influence other thoughts, opinions, and stances as Dr. Mason noted,

“Psychologically, once the party has taken a stance on an issue, particularly if its a controversial stance, there is this need to defend the group, to find a way to justify the position, and to essentially stand up for the party in a way that really is self-protective psychologically.”

- Dr. Lilliana Mason

Even if an individual might disagree with their party’s stance, the threat to identity that would come with refuting their party’s position is psychologically painful.

Dr. Mason concluded her discussion by stating that independents are situated in a unique space as they can serve as arbiters and contribute a more unbiased perspective to the conversations. Even as non-office-seeking individuals, independents can help bridge the partisan divide in discussions simply by stating they are independent rather than associating themselves as “the other,” which could immediately shut down willingness to listen or converse. Group behavior, intensified party divisions, and a polarized public can portray a dismal picture, yet insights from those same categories also can help inform a less antagonistic political sphere, hopefully guided by elected independents and independent voters.


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