Elite partisan polarization has been found to have several potentially problematic effects on citizens, such as creating political distrust and different types of polarization among partisans. However, it remains unclear whether these effects are caused by the parties moving apart in terms of issue positions (issue polarization) or by the rise of disrespectful rhetoric (incivility). In the literature, these two dimensions of elite polarization often appear to affect citizens in similar ways, but typical research designs have not been well suited to disentangling their effects. To determine their unique effects, four studies have been conducted using original designs and a mix of experimental and observational data. The results show that issue polarization and incivility have clearly distinct effects. A more uncivil tone lowers political trust, but increasing issue polarization does not. Conversely, only issue polarization creates attitude polarization among partisans. Both aspects of elite polarization create affective polarization.From the article:
[The] results also have normative implications. For instance, among the findings that might be regarded as positive, we see that trust in politicians is affected by the tone of the debate, but issue polarization has no effect on this outcome. The fact that citizens can cope with strong political disagreement without losing faith in their elected politicians is good news for those who believe that issue polarization is a valuable good in a democracy, and for those trying to improve the level of civility in public debate, hoping it might reduce political alienation.
However, the results also show that polarization in terms of policy attitudes is created solely by issue polarization, and that both types of elite conflict create affective polarization. Partisan divides among citizens are largely a function of how much the parties substantively disagree, and making debates more civil will do little to bridge them. Having parties with distinct ideological platforms is thus a state of affairs that cannot be attained without a rise in polarization and animosity among partisans, no matter how civil the debate becomes. To the proponents of the responsible party model – who have traditionally argued in favor of presenting citizens with clear political alternatives (for example, APSA 1950) – this might be regarded as bad news. It also shows that ‘disagreeing without being disagreeable’–a mantra advocated by politicians ranging from Reagan to Obama – is not enough to bridge partisan divides in the electorate. Politics matter, and tensions between ordinary Republicans and Democrats will persist unless the parties agree more on substantive issues.