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Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, Lilliana Mason

Reviewed by Sam Rosenfeld

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Our hyperpartisan era has occasioned a sea change in understandings of American political behavior—or perhaps more accurately, a returning tide.

Following decades of research divining substantively “rational” behavior in the heuristics employed by American voters, recent work has reemphasized the affective, group-oriented, psychological drivers of party affiliation and voting first detailed in classics of mid-twentieth-century behavioralism. Lilliana Mason’s impressive new book serves as a definitive statement of this view as it relates to polarization, masterfully synthesizing existing work with a battery of original studies while applying a novel framework borrowed from social identity theory in psychology. All politics is identity politics, Mason argues, and the key to our current woes is that social sorting has turned our two major parties into all-consuming “mega-identities” for the majority of the electorate.

In a well-structured argument conveyed in pristine prose, Mason first documents the universally experienced, psychologically ingrained, and inherently conflictive qualities of group-based identification. What distinguishes contemporary party politics is that powerful group identities that used to crosscut the party divide have now sorted themselves alongside it. Divisions by race, religion, and ideology (conceptualized as a marker of group affinity rather than a bundle of issue positions) have come into alignment with the party cleavage. Mason demonstrates through persuasive observational and experimental work that it is the extent of this group alignment rather than the extremity, intensity, or consistency of partisans’ policy views that drives partisan bias, feelings of anger and enthusiasm, and increased political engagement. “A single group identity can have powerful effects,” Mason summarizes, “but multiple groups all playing for the same team can lead to a very deep social or even cultural divide” (p. 19). She follows the logic of her findings into provocative normative territory, concluding that political engagement under conditions of social polarization might not be such a desirable thing.

Amid its rich insights, Uncivil Agreement left me with two concerns. First, the absence of discussion of partisan asymmetry stands out. Though this absence is consistent with the lack of partisan differences in her findings on emotional reactivity and activism, a substantial majority of her real-world examples concern Republican behavior. This is unsurprising. Notwithstanding generalizations about “increasingly homogenous parties” (p. 26), the contemporary Democratic Party is neither homogenously liberal nor homogenously secular nor homogenously non-white (itself a contradiction in terms). The group alignments within the Republican Party, by contrast, do constitute a substantially homogenous population in ideology, religion, and race—representing in the latter cases the country’s traditionally dominant in-groups. Focusing on the distinct group dynamics that social sorting has produced in the two parties might in turn have led to more direct engagement with questions of power and status in society, rather than simply identity.

A second concern is less a criticism of Mason’s book than a call to bridge a broader divide between behavioral and institutional scholarship. The new work illuminating the nonrational tribalism driving mass political behavior tends to convey an image of contemporary polarization as largely meaningless in substantive terms—as content-free as the battles between the Eagles and Wranglers of Robber’s Cave in the famous study that opens Uncivil Agreement. “The political fights in American politics are supposed to be about something,” Mason writes. “An abundance of evidence, however, contradicts this view” (p. 74). As applied to behavior in the mass electorate, this has clear merit. But at the level of policymaking and elite agendas, the parties’ substantive divisions are massive, stark, and systematic. They are about plenty. What, then, connects the dynamics of social polarization in the electorate to elite-level policy conflicts and governance? How do parties and other groups engage and shape the group identities of voters? Is mass social polarization the driver of elites’ behavior, or more a precondition for elites’ pursuit of agendas with distinct logics and sources? A focus on the animal spirits driving the electorate may only take us so far.

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