Research

My research focuses extremism in democracies. I describe my research on this topic in the paragraphs that follow. These projects use a variety of methods, including experiments, surveys, text-as-data, and other techniques. I consider the nature of extremism and factors that promote and discourage extremism.

Please contact me for materials relating to any of these papers or projects.

Publications:

Perceptions of Extremism in the American Public and Elected Officials” Forthcoming, Electoral Studies, Online Appendix, Replication data

Democracies face rising concerns about extremism. At the same time, citizens and political actors define extremism in different ways with different consequences. In light of this, what do American citizens and elected officials consider to be extreme, and what political penalties are associated with extreme behavior and beliefs? To answer these questions, I rely on three surveys, two of the American public and one with American elected officials. Respondents’ open-ended definitions of extremism and two conjoint experiments suggest that Americans do have ideas about extremism that
correspond to research and theorizing about democracy – focusing, for example, on spatial extremity and an unwillingness to listen to others. However, the use of these standards is slanted in favor of one’s own political position and does not indicate a robust recognition or rejection of many normatively troubling forms of extremism.

“Should You Stay away from Strangers? Conducting Experiments on the Political Consequences of Intergroup Contact” 2021, Cambridge University Press, Online access –DOI , Online Appendix

Many theories of democracy suggest that harmonious relationship between groups are critical for democratic societies, and intergroup contact presents an appealing way to encourage these relationships. However, what types of contact encourage harmony between groups? In this Element, I review existing studies of contact, propose a framework for productively studying the political consequences of intergroup contact through experiments, and discuss four experiments following these recommendations. These studies focus on the consequences of the difficulty of communicating in the contact experience and are conducted on different samples and contexts to present a broad picture of the role of different forms of contact. I find that easy-to-understand forms of contact do not promote more political support for racial and ethnic outgroups and can, in some conditions, provoke a backlash consistent with theories about social identity and group threat. I conclude by discussing the implications of the substantive findings and the proposed framework for studying contact.

Busby, Ethan C., Adam J. Howat, Richard Shafranek, and Jacob Rothschild. “The Partisan Next Door: Stereotypes of Party Supporters and Consequences for Polarization in America” 2021, Cambridge University Press, Online Access – DOI, Online Appendix

Partisan polarization in the United States has, in recent decades, risen to near-unprecedented levels. Supporters of the Democratic and Republican Parties increasingly express a deep, fundamental dislike of opposing partisans, regardless of whether they disagree on policy. This phenomenon, known as affective polarization (Iyengar et al. 2019), arises from partisanship’s growing role as a social identity in its own right, comparable in its nature and consequences to race, religion, or gender (Green, Palmquist, and Schickler 2002; Greene 1999, 2004). In other words, partisanship shapes not only people’s expressly political orientations and behaviors; it also constitutes, for many individuals, a key component of their self-concepts—and, by extension, how they socially categorize others.

In the context of such polarization, how, precisely, do everyday party supporters think about each other? What images come to mind when ordinary people think of these ordinary partisans? Moreover, what are the consequences for polarization of holding different images of mass partisans in one’s head? Using both observational and experimental data, our book provides answers to these questions.

Our findings show that a large portion of the American public hold clear, sensible ideas about party supporters. These stereotypes tend to cohere around traits, political issues, and groups—in line with the identity, instrumental, and group views of partisanship, respectively. Moreover, the specific images people hold of run-of-the-mill partisans—and not merely the affective evaluations attached to those images—matter when it comes to relations between the parties and partisans. Thinking of everyday partisans in terms of what they “are like,” particularly when it comes to individual character traits, tends to accentuate polarization of all kinds. However, if people can be induced to take a more instrumental view, focusing on the different issues that the parties consider important, this may help to reduce partisan animus, facilitate political compromise, and promote social harmony between supporters of the two parties.

Thompson, Andrew Ifedapo and Ethan C. Busby. 2021. “Defending the Dog Whistle: The Role of Justifications in Racial Messaging“. Political Behavior. Replication data

American politicians frequently evoke race in their messages to the public; at the same time, politicians often pay a price for racialized rhetoric. We propose that elites continue to use messages about race because they can mitigate the costs of doing so with justifications for their original statements. Integrating literatures on elite rhetorical tactics and framing, we predict that when justifications and implicit racial messages are combined, elites can mobilize the support for racially resentful Whites without alienating others. In a pair of survey experiments conducted in 2019 and 2020, we examine the effectiveness of justifications in swaying Whites’ attitudes. We find that two different elite justifications bolster support for their messages. Importantly, we also find these tactics do not incur political costs. This provides a compelling reason that political figures continue to use racial messages in politics despite recent social movements and possible shifts in Americans’ attitudes about race.

Busby, Ethan, Kirk A. Hawkins, and Joshua R. Gubler. 2019. “Framing and Blame Attribution in Populist Rhetoric“. Journal of Politics 81(2):616-630. Replication data

Scholars have long known that the rhetoric of populist politicians is an important part of their appeal; however, less is known about how that rhetoric operates. Drawing on data from two large experiments conducted with American adults, we show that survey questions encouraging individuals to consider political problems within a dispositional blame frame activates latent populist attitudes, while an encouragement to consider these same problems in a situational blame frame does not. In our second experiment, we connect this framing change to voting intentions and find that subjects exposed to dispositional frames are more likely to express support for Donald Trump and less likely to express support for Hillary Clinton than subjects exposed to situational frames. Importantly, the impact of framing is contingent on pre-existing populist attitudes; subjects with moderate levels of populist attitudes are much more likely to demonstrate an increase in expressed populism and support for Trump.

Rothschild, Jacob, Adam Howat, Richard Shafranek, and Ethan Busby. 2019. “Pigeonholing Partisans: Mass Stereotypes of Party Supporters and Partisan Polarization“. Political Behavior 41(2): 423-443. Replication data.

What comes to mind when people think about rank-and-file party supporters? What stereotypes do people hold regarding ordinary partisans, and are these views politically consequential? We utilize open-ended survey items and structural topic modeling to document stereotypes about rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans. Many subjects report stereotypes consistent with the parties’ actual composition, but individual differences in political knowledge, interest, and partisan affiliation predict their specific content. Respondents varied in their tendency to characterize partisans in terms of group memberships, issue preferences, or individual traits, lending support to both ideological and identity-based conceptions of partisanship. Most importantly, we show that partisan stereotype content is politically significant: individuals who think of partisans in a predominantly trait-based manner – that is, in a way consistent with partisanship as a social identity – display dramatically higher levels of both affective and ideological polarization.

Busby, Ethan and James N. Druckman. 2018. Football and Public Opinion: A Partial Replication and Extension“. Journal of Experimental Political Science 5(1):4-10. Replication data.

Do events irrelevant to politics, such as the weather and sporting events, affect political opinions? A growing experimental literature suggests that such events can matter. However, extant experimental evidence may over-state irrelevant event effects; this could occur if these studies happen to focus on particular scenarios where irrelevant event effects are likely to occur. One way to address this possibility is through replication, which is what we do. Specifically, we replicate an experimental study that showed the outcome of a college football game can influence presidential approval. Our results partially replicate the previous study and suggest the impact is constrained to a limited set of outcome variables. The findings accentuate the need for scholars to identify the conditions under which irrelevant effects occur. While the effects clearly can occur, there relevance to politics remains unclear.

Busby, Ethan, James N. Druckman, and Alexandria Fredendall. 2017. “The Political Relevance of Irrelevant Events”. Journal of Politics 79(1): 346-350. Replication Data

Do events irrelevant to politics affect citizens’ political opinions? A growing literature suggests that such events (e.g., athletic competitions, shark attacks) do in fact shape political preferences. We present an experiment that largely replicates a widely noted irrelevant event effect. Specifically, we find that the outcome of a sporting event (i.e., a football game) affects presidential approval and likely does so by affecting individuals’ moods. We also show that the effect is short-lived.

Busby, Ethan, D.J. Flynn, and James N. Druckman. 2018. “Studying Framing Effects on Political Preferences: Existing Research and Lingering Questions.” Doing News Framing Analysis II (Paul D’Angelo, ed.). New York: Routledge, p. 27-50.

This chapter reviews the state of framing research, noting strengths, weaknesses, and unexplored areas of this literature.

Hawkins, Kirk, A., Levente Littvay, and Ethan C. Busby. 2019. “The Causes of Populism: Explaining the Victory” Contemporary US Populism in a Comparative Perspective (Kirk A. Hawkins and Levente Littvay). New York: Cambridge University Press.

This chapter, as part of a larger book on populism in the United States from a comparative perspective, explores the insights research on populism brings to understanding the 2016 elections and the victory of Donald Trump. The chapter relies on survey data from the United States in 2008, 2012, and 2016 to explore this topic. We show that populist attitudes is a key driver of support for populist movements and candidates, even controlling for authoritarianism, immigration attitudes, and racial resentment.

Busby, Ethan C., David Doyle, Kirk A. Hawkins, Nina Wiesehomeier. 2018. “Activating populist attitudes: the role of corruption.” The ideational approach to populism: Concept, theory, and method.  (Kirk A. Hawkins, Ryan Carlin, Levi Littvay, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, eds.). New York: Routledge.

Recent advances in the study of populism, particularly at the individual-level, have conclusively demonstrated the importance of elite framing for activating and directing latent populist attitudes among the electorate. Ideational work in this vein however, has yet to explain exactly how policy failure and the political context also incentivize populist behavior. We expect that policy failures that result from intentional misconduct are more likely to trigger a populist response than those resulting from negligence or external causes, and that such a response is likely to be greater when this type of corruption is endemic. We tested these theoretical expectations in two laboratory-based experiments: one on a student sample at Northwestern University in the United States, the other on a mixed student/resident sample at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

Under review:

“Left on Read: How Elites Respond to Identity-Oriented Messages and Marginalized Constituents”— with Andrew I. Thompson, Tomo Vierbuchen, and Suzy Yi. (article under review)

Listening and responding to citizens is central to representative democracy, but elected officials often do not respond equitably to all constituents. We apply an intersectional approach to better understand responsiveness, considering the consequences of constituents’ identities, what constituents discuss, and elected officials’ identities. We implement a wide-scale experiment with U.S. elected officials (N=23,738) to test our predictions. Extending previous work, we vary the race, gender, and topic of the constituent’s message, and we observe if elected officials open and reply to constituents’ messages. We find that Black men face penalties in responsiveness across conditions. In contrast, elected officials respond less to Black women when they discuss race and less to White women when they discuss gender. We discuss the implications of this study for work on responsiveness in democratic government.

“Out of One, Many: Using Language Models to Simulate Human Samples”—with Lisa P. Argyle, Nancy Fulda, Joshua Gubler, Christopher Rytting, and David Wingate. (article under review)

We propose and explore the possibility that language models can be studied as effective proxies for specific human sub-populations in social science research. Practical and research applications of artificial intelligence tools have sometimes been limited by problematic biases (such as racism or sexism), which are often treated as uniform properties of the models. We show that the “algorithmic bias” within one such tool– the GPT-3 language model– is instead both fine-grained and demographically correlated, meaning that proper conditioning will cause it to accurately emulate response distributions from a wide variety of human subgroups. We term this property algorithmic fidelity and explore its extent in GPT-3. We create “silicon samples” by conditioning the model on thousands of socio-demographic backstories from real human participants in multiple large surveys conducted in the United States. We then compare the silicon and human samples to demonstrate that the information contained in GPT-3 goes far beyond surface similarity. It is nuanced, multifaceted, and reflects the complex interplay between ideas, attitudes, and socio-cultural context that characterize human attitudes. We suggest that language models with sufficient algorithmic fidelity thus constitute a novel and powerful tool to advance understanding of humans and society across a variety of disciplines.

Ongoing research and working papers:

“Embracing Issues and Ideology: Extending the Ideational Theory of Populism”—with Ryan E. Carlin, Kirk A. Hawkins, and Levente Littvay. Working paper

Many debates on the nature of populism persist in the public and among academics. We contend that two visions of populism – issue-centric and ideational perspectives – are nested within each other in what we call an extended ideational approach. We test the implications of this argument through an experiment with 30,000 readers of The Guardian. Experimentally prompting either populist or nonpopulist blame, we find the following three things: (1) populist rhetoric produces populism across countries and participants; (2) different political issues provoke more populism than others; and (3) political issues combine with respondents’ ideology to prompt populism in predictable ways. These findings support our theory, combine the insights from narrower perspectives on populism, and indicate important democratic implications of populism

“Changing Stereotypes of Partisans in the Trump Era”—with Adam Howat and C. Daniel Myers. Working paper

Stereotypes of the two parties play an important role in political cognition, and a range of recent studies have examined the content and effects of partisan stereotypes. However, little work has studied change in partisan stereotypes over time. We address this question by comparing data on stereotypes of partisans collected before and after the Trump presidency, a time when we might expect individuals’ images of the two parties to undergo significant change. Using a structural topic model, we compare responses to open-ended questions asking respondents to list words describing members of the two parties from 2016 and 2021. We find that partisan stereotypes became less group and issue-based during this period and focused more on personal traits. These results suggest that during the Trump era members of the mass public came to see the parties less as coalitions of groups and more as social groups in their own right, potentially contributing to affective polarization.

“Dangerous or Just Differences of Opinion? Distinguishing between different types of extremism” Working Paper.

This study considers the different forms extremism takes in the United States and how those forms relate to support for political violence and illegal tactics. I rely on a latent profile analysis with data from the ANES to evaluate different types of extremism. I then predict support for political violence and related tactics with the forms of extremism suggested by the latent profile analysis. Different combinations of extremism exist, including versions that combine extremist and nonextremist views and those with multiple forms of extremism simultaneously – a group I label compound extremists. This latter group are the most likely to endorse political violence and illegal behavior as a means to political ends. Attempts to address extremism need not completely change every extremist belief; instead, introducing some more moderate attitudes can weaken the connection between extremism and support for political violence.

“No Labeled Data: Coding Social Science Datasets with Language Models” — with Christopher Michael Rytting, Taylor Sorensen, Lisa Argyle, Nancy Fulda, David Wingate, and Joshua Gubler.

Researchers often rely on humans to code (label, annotate, etc.) large sets of texts. This is a highly variable task and requires a great deal of time and resources. Efforts to automate this process have achieved human-level accuracies in some cases, but often rely on thousands of hand-labeled training examples, which makes them inapplicable to small-scale research studies and still costly for large ones. At the same time, it is well known that language models can classify text; in this work, we use GPT-3 as a synthetic coder, and compare it to human coders using classic methodologies and metrics, such as intercoder reliability. We find that GPT-3 can match the performance of typical human coders and frequently outperforms them in terms of intercoder agreement across a variety of social science tasks, suggesting that language models could serve as useful coders.

“Who is sorted and why does it matter?” —with Andrew I. Thompson. Ongoing project.

Recent scholarship and political events have raised the importance of partisan sorting, or the aligning of various social groups into different political camps. One important form of partisan sorting is ideological sorting, where conservatives and liberals increasingly sort themselves into the Republican and Democratic Parties (respectively). Thus far, we propose that political science has done a thorough job documenting what sorting is but has done significantly less to establish precisely who is sorted and what sorting’s consequences are for democracy broadly. In this paper, we replicate existing studies of sorting and explore two new questions – what predicts party-ideology sorting and how is that kind of sorting related to attitudes about democracy? We use data from the 2016 ANES, 2020 ANES, and the 2016-2020 ANES panel to evaluate these questions. In keeping with prior research and our expectations, we find distinct and uneven patterns of sorting across the American electorate. Further, these findings replicate others  and connect sorting to affective polarization, political participation, and anger. With respect to attitudes about democracy, on the other hand, the consequences of party-ideological sorting are more complex and depend on political context. Overall, we show that partisan sorting is unevenly spread across the American electorate, is occurring among distinct social groups, and has a contingent relationship with attitudes that directly undermine democracy. We contend that efforts to create more robust support for democracy in the United States, then, must do more than address partisan sorting.

“Cancel culture: Rooted in principled values, political rhetoric, or group identity?”—with Lisa P. Argyle. Ongoing project

“Cancel culture” has recently become a prominent phrase in US political commentary, with supporters and opponents relying on different value-based arguments to express their views. Many critics couch their concerns within rights-based narratives, particularly the freedom of speech, arguing that boycotts and criticisms amount to intolerance and censorship. Supporters, on the other hand, justify their behavior within the context of as promoting inclusivity and empowerment of marginalized groups. At the same time, these camps often fall along predictable political lines, confounding differences by values and partisanship. What, then, are the real motivations for both promoting and opposing “cancelling” practices in contemporary American politics? We explore this question through a survey experiment conducted in 2021 with a high-quality sample of Americans (N of 1,000). We vary the justification given for canceling and the partisanship of the person doing the canceling to compare values-based arguments to other identity-based explanations of support or opposition to cancel culture. We examine variation in the behaviors that respondents associate with the term canceling, as well as their support for those behaviors, to examine the link between partisanship, values, and a range of civic activities. We thus use cancel culture as a case to evaluate prominent public opinion and political psychology theories, allowing us to assess the relative importance of political values, partisan identity, and political agreement. Our work thus contributes to larger discussions about public opinion and citizens’ commitments to democratic values and norms.

“The socialization of economic inequality”—with Andrea K. Busby. Ongoing project