Why There’s More to Party IdentityThan Bias

By Bjarki Gronfeldt (University of Kent)

Party identity has earned quite a negative reputation. The current political climate in many of the world’s democracies can justifiably be described as “hyper-partisan” and polarised along party lines. A report by Harvard Business School even goes so far as saying that extreme partisanship is destroying America’s competitiveness on the global market (Gaskell, 2020).

Social science research has generally supported this view. Party identity can be described as a “lens” through which we see the social world, often in a biased way. For example, research has demonstrated that party identities bias the way voters understand political information and make them abandon their principles (Bolsen et al., 2014).

However, very little research has been conducted on how party identity may affect politicians themselves, not just ordinary voters. We wanted to explore the possibility that there might be more to party identity than bias and one-sidedness. We suspect that it may in fact sometimes be constructive, and that it could therefore be related to positive outcomes in a politician’s work.

There is no handbook outlining how to be a politician. They are mostly free to decide how they approach their profession, as they are democratically elected representatives and maintain their post as long as the electorate is satisfied. Despite this ambiguity of political work, research has demonstrated that political actors do appear to share a common view on what constitutes a good political skill-set and high performance in the political arena (Ferris et al., 2005; Silvester et al., 2014).

While politically skilled individuals tend to have confidence and social skills, political skill is a unique trait, enabling those who score high on it to climb the organisational ladder and attain their goals (Ferris et.al., 2008). Political skill is independent of general intelligence, meaning that politically savvy individuals are not necessarily smarter than the rest of us: politics is just their forte. Most politicians are, however, not lone-wolfs — they are parts of a larger collective, a political party, which comes with an accompanying partisan identity. Identities can influence the way we go about our daily lives, including our work.

Identities, such as partisan identity, can take various forms. Many readers will be familiar with narcissism as an individual personality trait: the self-admiration, entitlement and arrogance some people exhibit (Raskin & Terry, 1988). The term itself is derived from Narcissus, the Greek mythical figure who fell in love with his own reflection. However, researchers have discovered that individual narcissism has a parallel on the group level: collective narcissism. To put it simply, these people admire their group, rather than themselves.

Collective narcissism is defined as an inflated and unrealistic belief in the greatness of one’s group (Golec de Zavala et al., 2009). Collective narcissists have an excessive emotional investment in their group, but yet is not confidently held, as collective narcissists are convinced that their group’s greatness is not recognised by others. As a consequence of their insecurity, collective narcissists react aggressively to criticism or insults aim at their group, much like individual narcissists are aggressive towards other individuals who threaten their ego.

We see this style of attachment to the group materialise in the rise of nationalistic movements around the world (Cichocka & Cislak, 2020). US President Donald Trump not only wants to make America great again, but insists that other countries do not show the US the respect it is due. In the UK, Poland, Hungary, Brazil, and elsewhere, leaders and parties emphasising the uniqueness, but yet unrecognition, of their nations have risen to power. As noted earlier, we’re interested in party identity, and refer to collective narcissism in the political party context as partisan narcissism.

Contrary to collective narcissism, people can also identify securely with their groups (Cichocka, 2016; Golec de Zavala et al., 2013). Group identification without the narcissistic component is characterised by pride in group membership, but does not include of the need to protect the in-group image. Here, we refer to this confident belief in one’s political party as partisan identification.

Utilising a sample of active party members running for elected office, we wanted to see whether partisan identification and partisan narcissism were associated with different strategies and persuasion tactics politicians use to gain voters’ and co-partisans affection. We examined political skill — the ability to understand others and act on it to achieve political goals (Ferris et al., 2005) and political performance — how well or poorly one feels one is performing in political work (Silvester et al., 2014).

Our findings challenge the conventional thinking about partisanship, both in terms of academic research and stereotypes often held about politicians. In our study, politicians who identified strongly, but confidently, with their party reported behaviours that facilitated trust, support, and perception of sincerity in their attempts to obtain their goals.

This effectively means that despite high attachment to their party, these politicians made an effort to appear sincere and likeable, while also emphasising meticulousness in the more formal parts of the job — like reviewing documents and understand complex information. These highly identified partisans can perhaps even “reach across the aisle” by representing wider groups people, such as their constituency or country, rather than just their own goals or party’s agenda. Ultimately, this indicates that partisanship can have the potential to increase professionalism and facilitate better governance.

Despite these optimistic findings, we also found evidence that there is still something to the old stereotype about deeply committed partisans. Partisan narcissism was positively associated with politicking behaviour — the inclination to view politics as a blood-sport and engage in secrecy and deception in one’s political work. Individuals high on this trait are the street dogs of politics; they work behind the curtains, ready to step on toes if they deem it necessary.

Partisan narcissists, however, make for bad comrades. Partisan narcissists seemed unskilled at, or perhaps indifferent about, building alliances, convincing others to follow them, appearing honest and sincere, and so on. This likely extends beyond just voters and other political parties, and partisan narcissists may even be indifferent about gaining the affection of their own co-party members.

However, in politics, as in other domains as well, some level of ruthlessness and maneuvering is necessary for success, and that is where partisan narcissists may have the upper hand as they exhibited higher levels of politicking than high partisan identifiers. Secrecy, deception, and political blood-sport are all age old facets of the political process. In fact, arguably, politicking can be an essential skill for a politician to successfully solve the biggest task the job entails: getting things done.

About the Author

Bjarki is a PhD researcher at the University of Kent. His research focuses on collective narcissism and how it affects intra-group processes. The paper’s co-authors are Dr Aleksandra Cichocka (University of Kent and Nicolaus Copernicus University), Dr Aleksandra Cislak (SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities), and Dr Madeleine Wyatt (University of Kent).

About the ISPP & its Blog

The International Society of Political Psychology is an interdisciplinary organization representing all fields of inquiry concerned with exploring the relationships between political and psychological processes. If you are interested in contributing an article or have any questions about the blog, please email them or visit the ISPP Blog’s webpage.


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