Steven W. Webster


Partisan Schadenfreude and Candidate Cruelty

We establish the prevalence of partisan schadenfreude -- that is, taking "joy in the suffering" of partisan others. Analyzing attitudes on health care, taxation, climate change, and the coronavirus pandemic, we find that a sizable portion of the American mass public engages in partisan schadenfreude and that these attitudes are most expressed by those who are ideologically extreme. Additionally, we find that a sizable portion of the American public is more likely than not to vote for candidates who promise to pass policies that "disproportionately harm" supporters of the opposing political party, and we demonstrate experimental evidence of demand/preference for candidates that promise cruelty among those who exhibit high amounts of schadenfreude. In sum, our results suggest that partisan schadenfreude is widespread and has disturbing implications for American political behavior. Co-authored with Adam Glynn and Matt Motta.


Through The Ideology of the Beholder: How Ideology Shapes Perceptions of Partisan Groups

Growing attitudinal and affective differences across party lines and increasing social polarization are often attributed to the strengthening of partisanship as a social identity. Scholars have paid less attention to personal preferences as a contributor to these phenomena. Our focus is on how citizens' policy beliefs -- their operational ideologies -- are associated with their views of partisan groups. We examine our perspective with two studies. In the first, we find that the attribution of ideologically extreme political views to an individual's peer significantly reduces interest in interpersonal interaction but find limited evidence that partisan group membership alone induces social polarization. In the second, we show that citizens' policy views are strongly associated with their perceptions of their own partisan group as well as their counterpartisans. Together, our results have important implications for understanding the consequences of increased polarization and partisan antipathy in contemporary politics. Co-authored with Jonathan Homola, Jon Rogowski, Betsy Sinclair, Michelle Torres, and Patrick Tucker.


Crime and Presidential Accountability: A Case of Racially Conditioned Issue Ownership

Americans are anxious about crime regardless of their actual exposure or risk. Given this pervasive concern, US presidents frequently talk about crime, take actions to address it, and list crime prevention efforts among their top accomplishments. We argue that presidents act this way, in part, because fear of crime translates into a penalty on presidential approval. However, this penalty is not applied evenly. We contend that there is a racial component to this fear. Given the parties' stances toward crime and the criminal justice system, Whites will only punish Democratic presidents (i.e., Clinton and Obama) when they are anxious about crime, while Blacks will only punish Republican presidents (i.e., Bush and Trump). We examine twenty years of survey data and find evidence consistent with our theory. Our results suggest that the relationship between fear of crime and presidential accountability is conditioned by an individual's race and the president's party. Co-authored with Benjamin Noble and Andrew Reeves.


The Social Consequences of Political Anger

A functioning democracy relies on social interactions between people who disagree -- including listening to others' viewpoints, having political discussions, and finding political compromise. Yet, social life in the contemporary United States is characterized by a relative lack of interaction between Democrats and Republicans (or, social polarization). We argue that political anger contributes to social polarization by leading partisans to cut off ties with opposing partisans. We first draw on data from the American National Election Studies and the Wesleyan Media Project to show that the mass public is increasingly angry and that politicians increasingly seek to elicit anger. We then present results from a survey experiment on nearly 3,500 Americans, finding that the exogenous introduction of anger causes citizens to socially polarize across a range of settings. Our findings suggest that the increasing levels of political anger paralyze politics and harm democracy by influencing Americans' social interactions and relationships. Co-authored with Elizabeth Connors and Betsy Sinclair.


Emotion and Politics: Noncognitive Psychological Biases in Public Opinion

Contemporary politics is noteworthy for its emotional character. Emotions shape and, in turn, are elicited by partisan polarization, public opinion, and political attitudes. In this article, we outline recent work in the field of emotion and politics with an emphasis on the relationship between emotion and polarization, issue attitudes, information processing, and views on democratic governance. We also highlight a growing body of scholarship that examines the racial and gender differences in emotion's ability to affect political behavior. We conclude with a discussion of unaddressed questions and suggestions for future directions for scholars working in this area of growing importance. Co-authored with Bethany Albertson.


All (Mayoral) Politics is Local?

One of the defining characteristics of modern politics in the United States is the increasing nationalization of elite- and voter-level behavior. Relying on measures of electoral vote shares, previous research has found evidence indicating a significant amount of state-level nationalization. Using an alternative source of data -- the political rhetoric used by mayors, state governors, and Members of Congress on Twitter -- we examine and compare the amount of between-office nationalization throughout the federal system. We find that gubernatorial rhetoric closely matches that of Members of Congress but that there are substantial differences in the topics and content of mayoral speech. These results suggest that, on average, American mayors have largely remained focused on their local mandate. More broadly, our findings suggest a limit to which American politics has become nationalized -- in some cases, all politics remains local. Co-authored with Sanmay Das, Betsy Sinclair, and Hao Yan.


The Role of Political Elites in Eliciting Mass-Level Anger

Contemporary American politics is notable for its high levels of anger and partisan antipathy. While these developments are attributable in large part to societal-level sociopolitical trends, I argue that they are also the result of politicians' deliberate and strategic attempts to elicit mass-level anger. In this paper, I analyze over one million tweets sent by members of the 116th Congress to demonstrate that political elites do appeal to anger and that the angriest of these appeals are most likely to come from the most ideologically extreme Members of Congress -- that is, the most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans. I further show that this relationship is stronger for Democratic politicians, and that authoring tweets with a greater amount of anger generates more engagement. The results suggest that as long as politicians have an incentive to appeal to mass-level anger, the divisions characterizing American politics are likely to persist.


American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics

American Rage argues that anger is the central emotion governing contemporary US politics, with powerful, deleterious effects. Tracing the developments that have given rise to a culture of anger in the mass public, the book sheds new light on both public opinion and voting behavior. Steven W. Webster skillfully uses a combination of novel datasets, new measures of anger, and a series of experiments to show how anger causes citizens to lose trust in the national government and weaken in their commitment to democratic norms and values. Despite these negative consequences, political elites strategically seek to elicit anger among their supporters. Presenting compelling evidence, Webster ultimately concludes that elites engage in this behavior because voter anger leads to voter loyalty. When voters are angry, they are more likely to vote for their party's slate of candidates at multiple levels of the federal electoral system.


Does Residential Sorting Explain Geographic Polarization?

Political preferences in the US are highly correlated with population density, at national, state, and metropolitan-area scales. Using new data from voter registration records, we assess the extent to which this pattern can be explained by geographic mobility. We find that the revealed preferences of voters who move from one residence to another correlate with partisan affiliation, though voters appear to be sorting on non-political neighborhood attributes that covary with partisan preferences rather than explicitly seeking politically congruent neighbors. But, critically, we demonstrate through a simulation study that the estimated partisan bias in moving choices is far too small to sustain the current geographic polarization of preferences. We conclude that geography must have some influence on political preference, rather than the other way around, and provide evidence in support of this theory. Co-authored with Gregory Martin.


Older, Younger, or More Similar? The Use of Age as a Voting Heuristic

Framing our analysis within the descriptive representation literature, we examine the use of a candidate's age as a voting heuristic for members of the electorate across three electoral contexts (House, Senate, and gubernatorial elections) and two election cycles. Utilizing data from the 2010 and 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), along with independently collected information on candidates' ages, we argue that voters prefer to vote for candidates who are closest to them in age. Our analyses suggest that a candidate's age can and does act as a voting heuristic. However, the strength of these findings are dependent upon the electoral context, individuals' education levels, and the political party with which an individual affiliates. Co-authored with Andrew Pierce.


Negative Partisanship: Why Americans Dislike Parties but Behave Like Rabid Partisans

One of the most important developments in American politics over the last 40 years has been the rise of negative partisanship -- the phenomenon whereby Americans largely align against one party instead of affiliating with the other. Though it has the power to reshape patterns of political behavior, little is known about the microfoundations driving negative partisanship. In this article, we show how the growing racial divide between the two major parties, as well as the presence of partisan-friendly media outlets, have led to the rise of negative partisanship. We also utilize the growing literature on personality and politics to show how the Big Five personality traits are predictive of negative partisanship. The results suggest that the psychological roots of negative partisanship are both widespread and, absent drastic individual and structural-level changes, likely to persist. Co-authored with Alan Abramowitz.


It's Personal: The Big Five Personality Traits and Negative Partisan Affect in Polarized U.S. Politics

One of the most important developments within the American electorate in recent years has been the rise of affective polarization. Whether this is due to notions of group based conflict or ideological disagreement, Americans increasingly dislike the opposing political party and its supporters. I contribute to this growing literature on affective polarization by showing how differences in individuals' Big Five personality traits are predictive of both whether an individual dislikes the opposing party and the degree to which they express this hostility. Modeling negative affect toward the opposing party as a two-stage process, I find that Extraverted individuals are less likely to have negative affective evaluations of the opposing party and, conditional upon disliking the opposing party, higher levels of Agreeableness lowers the degree to which individuals dislike the out-party. Moreover, these relationships are substantively stronger than common sociodemographic predictors such as age, race, and educational attainment.


Anger and Declining Trust in Government in the American Electorate

Partisanship in the United States in the contemporary era is largely characterized by feelings of anger and negativity. While the behavioral consequences of this new style of partisanship have been explored at some length, less is known about how the anger that is at the root of this growing partisan antipathy affects Americans' views of the national government. In this paper, I utilize data from the 2012 American National Election Studies (ANES) to show that higher levels of anger is associated with a greater level of distrust in government across a variety of metrics. I then present evidence from a survey experiment on a national sample of registered voters to show that anger has a causal effect in reducing citizens' trust in government. Importantly, I find that anger is able to affect an individual's views of the national government even when it is aroused through apolitical means. I also find that merely prompting individuals to think about politics is sufficient to arouse angry emotions. In total, the results suggest that anger and politics are closely intertwined, and that anger plays a broad and powerful role in shaping how Americans view their governing institutions.


The Ideological Foundations of Affective Polarization in the U.S. Electorate

Democratic and Republican partisans dislike the opposing party and its leaders far more than in the past. However, recent studies have argued that rise of affective polarization in the electorate does not reflect growing policy or ideological differences between supporters of the two parties. According to this view, while Democratic and Republican elites are sharply divided along ideological lines, differences between the policy preferences of rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans remain modest. In this paper we show that there is a very close connection between ideological and affective polarization. We present evidence from American National Election Study surveys that opinions on social welfare issues have become increasingly consistent and divided along party lines and that social welfare ideology is now strongly related to feelings about the opposing party and its leaders. In addition, we present results from a survey experiment showing that ideological distance strongly influences feelings toward opposing party candidates and the party as a whole. Co-authored with Alan Abramowitz.


The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of U.S. Elections in the 21st Century

One of the most important developments affecting electoral competition in the United States in the 21st century has been the increasing partisanship of the American electorate. However, the standard party identification scale does not adequately reflect the growing intensity of voters' partisan preferences. Using data from the American National Election Studies cumulative file, we show that since 1992 and especially since 2008, partisan identities have become increasingly associated with racial, cultural and ideological divisions in American society. As a result, growing proportions of strong, weak and leaning party identifiers have come to perceive important differences between the parties and to hold extremely negative opinions of the opposing party. This has led to sharp increases in party loyalty and straight ticket voting across all categories of party identification and to growing consistency between the results of presidential elections and the results of House and Senate elections. Increasing nationalization of congressional elections has important implications for party performance, democratic representation and governance. Co-authored with Alan Abramowitz.