Inequality, identity, and partisanship: How redistribution can stem the tide of mass polarization

Alexander J. Stewart, Joshua B. Plotkin, Nolan McCarty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


The form of political polarization where citizens develop strongly negative attitudes toward out-party members and policies has become increasingly prominent across many democracies. Economic hardship and social inequality, as well as intergroup and racial conflict, have been identified as important contributing factors to this phenomenon known as “affective polarization.” Research shows that partisan animosities are exacerbated when these interests and identities become aligned with existing party cleavages. In this paper, we use a model of cultural evolution to study how these forces combine to generate and maintain affective political polarization. We show that economic events can drive both affective polarization and the sorting of group identities along party lines, which, in turn, can magnify the effects of underlying inequality between those groups. But, on a more optimistic note, we show that sufficiently high levels of wealth redistribution through the provision of public goods can counteract this feedback and limit the rise of polarization. We test some of our key theoretical predictions using survey data on intergroup polarization, sorting of racial groups, and affective polarization in the United States over the past 50 y.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2102140118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number50
StatePublished - Dec 14 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Cultural evolution
  • Inequality
  • Polarization
  • Risk aversion


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