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.


“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” — Forthcoming at Cambridge University Press.

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.

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:

“Defending the Dog Whistle: The Role of Justifications in Racial Messaging”— with Andrew I. Thompson (revise and resubmit at Political Behavior)

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.

“Judgments of Extremism in the American Public and Elected Officials” (article under review)

Democracies around the world face extreme threats like the erosion of democratic norms, repression of dissent, and outbursts of political violence. The ability of democracies to defend themselves from these problems depends on how much citizens and political actors recognize such threats as extreme and penalize these kinds of extremism. What, then, do Americans citizens and elected officials recognize as extreme? What political penalties are associated with extremism? In this paper, I explore the defenses that both ordinary American citizens and elected officials provide against extremism in its various forms. Using data from two conjoint experiments, I find that the public can provide some protection from extremism, especially responding to political violence and incivility. Elected officials are even more adept at recognizing extremism and show more potential for protecting democracy from problematic types of extremists. Encouragingly, there appears to be a shared understanding of problematic forms of extremism and corresponding penalty; these results do not depend on individuals’ partisanship, similarity with the extremist, or political interest. However, many kinds of extremism go unacknowledged and even the most challenging forms of extremism are far from unanimously rejected.

“What is it really? Americans’ and Elected Officials’ Definitions of Extremism” (article under review)

How do Americans define extremism? What counts as moderate? Do American citizens and elected officials have the same things in mind when they think about extremism? To answer these questions, I conducted surveys of the American public and elected officials in the United States. Both employ open-ended survey questions to evaluate how people define extremism. I find that elected officials and members of the public talk about extremism more negatively than political moderation and that people define extremism in terms of ideological extremity and closed-mindedness. Members of the public also focus on hyper-engagement with politics, whereas elected officials mention blind partisanship as additional forms of extremism. I also find that statements about what it means to be a political moderate are the opposite of lay definitions of political extremism. I conclude by discussing the lessons from these findings for those studying extremism and democracy in the United States.

“Ideas, Issues, and Ideology: Testing a Synthetic Ideational Theory of Populism”—with Ryan E. Carlin, Kirk A. Hawkins, and Levente Littvay. (article under review)

Many debates on the nature of populism persist in the public at large 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 to populism. We test the implications of this argument through a preregistered online experiment of 30,000 readers of The Guardian. Using an elaboration task designed to prompt either populist or nonpopulist blame attribution for political problems, we find the following three things: (1) populist rhetoric produces populism across countries and subjects in our sample; (2) different political issues provoke more populism than others, even in the absence of populist rhetoric; and (3) political issues combine with respondents’ ideology to provoke more populism in predictable ways. We suggest that these findings support our theory, combine the insights from narrower perspectives on populism, and indicate important implications of populism for democracy.

“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)

Machine learning models often exhibit problematic biases (such as racism or sexism) which are often treated as a uniform property of the model. We show that the “bias” within 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 by conditioning the model on thousands of socio-demographic backstories from real human participants in two large research studies. We then demonstrate that the correlation between these “silicon samples” and samples from genuine humans goes far beyond simple surface similarity. It is nuanced, multifaceted, and reflects the complex interplay between ideas, attitudes, and socio-cultural context that characterize human attitudes, raising the possibility that language models can be studied as effective proxies for specific human sub-populations despite their macro-level weaknesses.

Ongoing research:

“Dangerous or Just Differences of Opinion? Distinguishing between different types of extremism” Working Paper. Draft
“Who is sorted and why does it matter?” —with Andrew I. Thompson. Ongoing project.
“Cancel culture: Rooted in principled values, political rhetoric, or group identity?”—with Lisa P. Argyle. Ongoing project
“The socialization of economic inequality”—with Andrea K. Busby. Ongoing project
“Racial Messages: A Two-Way Street Between the Public and Elites”—with Andrew I. Thompson. Ongoing project