Understanding Political Polarization: Perceived Threat and Conflict Attitudes

By Bose, Manasi | Chicago Policy Review (Online), February 25, 2019 | Go to article overview

Understanding Political Polarization: Perceived Threat and Conflict Attitudes


Bose, Manasi, Chicago Policy Review (Online)


Recent election results around the world reflect political polarization that is straining the fabric of democracy. Voting patterns indicate a preference for authoritarian leaders who promise closed borders and promote nationalism as an ideal. In a world where immigration is rising, it is important to understand both the resulting policy ramifications and the psychological impact of the perceived threats that accompany this movement.

A study by Julia Elad-Strenger and Golan Shahar discusses how the surge in far-right political discourse comes from perceived societal threats that encourage the endorsement of issue positions associated with far-right ideology. Conservative political ideology relieves uncertainty and anxiety associated with threats to “binding” moral foundations—such as language, religion, or ethnicity—and it therefore serves as an effective defense mechanism for these perceived threats.

By employing a three-wave longitudinal study, Elad-Strenger and Shahar sought to explain the relationship between value-specific perceived societal threats and political positions in situations of prolonged conflict. They hypothesize that threats perceived as challenging conservative values lead to political ideology that supports increased militaristic attitudes, closed borders and nationalism; conversely, challenges to liberal values lead to stronger endorsement of civil rights and democratic values. This latter position is one which has thus far been relatively unexplored. Through their research, the authors confirm these hypotheses. They suggest that certain types of conflict can increase endorsement of liberal political positions, even among conservatives, and that certain types of threats are best addressed by adopting a liberal political position.

Based in Israel and conducted on a nationally representative sample of 437 Jewish Israelis, the study was designed to examine the correlation between value-specific perceived threats and the ensuing political positions taken over time. The political positions were measured as “willingness to compromise for peace” and “militaristic attitudes,” based on the understanding that these are common threat responses for liberals and conservatives in the context of conflict. Party identification was used to classify study participants’ current political positions. Traditionally, left-wing parties are associated with “dovish” positions, such as civil rights, individual freedom, and separation of religion and state, while parties on the right are associated with “hawkish” positions, such as maintaining traditions and social order or strengthening ethnic identity. A cross-lagged panel design was used to isolate the “pure” effect of each threat variable on conflict-related attitudes. …

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