The Sacred Divide: Political Polarization and Sacred Values



Project Summary

Studies have shown that over the past few decades, social issues have supplanted fiscal issues as the primary driver of political party identification. During the same time frame, political polarization has increased dramatically in American politics. The goal of my research is to test if the increased importance of social issues contributes to partisan hostility.

To find an answer to my research question, I designed an online survey in which participants are asked to rank which issues are most important to them, whether or not they consider each issue “sacred” (in political psychology, a sacred value is defined as a moral imperative held so dearly that it subverts rational decision making and material considerations), and how each respondent feels towards members of the opposing party. If I can find that participants who hold sacred values also have more negative attitudes towards members of the opposite party than participants who do not have sacred values, then my hypothesis will be supported.

I have not completed the full statistical analysis of my results yet, but the data looks promising so far. Respondents are more likely to rank social issues as sacred values than fiscal issues, indicating that they have a stronger effect on political attitudes. I am currently cleaning and analyzing the data to see if the second part of my hypothesis, whether partisans who hold sacred values also view the opposing political faction more negatively, is supported.

Throughout this experience, I think the most important thing I have learned is how difficult science can be. As one of my professors said, “soft science is the real hard science.” I have had to create over a half dozen iterations of my survey to make sure I was asking clear questions and eliminating extraneous variables. Professor Bruneau was an incredible resource throughout this process, and I am excited to work with him to further analyze my data. I would like to thank CURF for their funding and support throughout this process, and I highly encourage any other Penn students to undertake an undergraduate research project before they graduate.