The Kids Are Also Polarized

Adolescents used to identify with a party but polarization was muted by a general warmth towards authority figures. Today, however, the warmth is gone and adolescents are as polarized as adults which has implications for future polarization and generalized distrust. New paper by Iyengar and Tyler (note the data is pre-pandemic):

We have shown that the onset of partisan polarization occurs early in the life cycle with very little change thereafter. Today, high levels of in-group favoritism and out-group distrust are in place well before early adulthood. In fact, our 2019 results suggest that the learning curve for polarization plateaus by the age of 11. This is very unlike the developmental pattern that held in the 1970s and 1980s, when early childhood was characterized by blanket positivity toward authority figures and partisanship gradually intruded into the political attitudes of adolescents before peaking in adulthood.

When we considered the antecedents of children’s trust in the parties, our findings confirm the earlier literature documenting the primacy of the family as an agent of socialization (Jennings and Niemi 1968; Jennings, Stoker, and Bowers 2009; Tedin 1974). Polarized parents seem to transmit not only their partisanship, but also their animus toward opponents. It is striking that the least polarized youth respondents in 2019 are those who have not adopted their parental partisan loyalty.

In closing, our findings have important implications for the study of political socialization. Fifty years ago, political socialization was thought to play a stabilizing role important to the perpetuation of democratic norms and institutions. In particular, children’s adoption of uncritical attitudes toward authority figures helped to legitimize the entire democratic regime. Indeed, researchers cited this functional” role of socialization in justifying the study of political attitudes in childhood (Kinder and Sears 1985; van Deth, Abendschön, and Vollmar 2011).

In the current era, it seems questionable whether the early acquisition of out-party animus fosters democratic norms and civic attitudes. Extreme polarization is now associated with rampant misinformation (Peterson and Iyengar 2021), and, as indicated by the events that occurred in the aftermath of the 2020 election, with willingness to reject the outcome of free and fair electoral procedures. The question for future research is how to transmit party attachments, as occurred in the pre-polarization era, without the accompanying distrust and disdain for political opponents.

Hat tip: John Hobein

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