Addressing Political Party Hostility, Women MPs May Be the Solution

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Angie Torres-Beltran, covers the new article by James Adams, University of California, Davis, David Bracken, University of California, Davis, Noam Gidron, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Will Horne, Princeton University, Diana Z. O’Brien, Rice University, and Kaitlin Senk, Rice University,  “Can’t We All Just Get Along? How Women MPs Can Ameliorate Affective Polarization in Western Publics”.

In recent years, partisan polarization has taken more hostile forms. Indeed, many political party supporters display intense animosity towards opposing party members. From the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection to the murder of British legislator Jo Cox during the 2016 Brexit campaign, polarization has been linked to heightened forms of distrust and hostility towards members of opposing parties. In a new article published in the American Political Science Review, the authors demonstrate the depolarizing potential of women members of parliament in 20 countries. Their research finds that women’s presence in parties’ parliamentary delegations is associated with reduced partisan hostility directed at these parties, and that both men and women react positively to women members of parliament.

The authors propose that supporters of a political party tend to have warmer feelings towards other, rival parties that elect more women to parliament. This could be because women politicians employ more collaborative and consensual leadership styles which defuses their opponents’ hostility, or because citizens and journalists stereotype women as more caring and consensual. In either case, women’s descriptive representation—that is, women’s presence in elected office—could provide an “affective bonus” to political parties by defusing animosity and hostility among their opponents. This means that who is elected to office is important for understanding party relations.

To test their affective bonus hypothesis, the authors combine an original dataset on women’s descriptive representation at the party level with survey data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems across 125 political parties for 20 Western democracies between 1996 and 2017. The original dataset contains information on the number of women members of parliament in a party’s parliamentary delegation. The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems survey data asks respondents about their own party identification and how positively or negatively they feel about parties in their country.

“The results are promising for policy makers, as they suggest that parties can defuse animosity while also providing better descriptive gender representation.” The results suggest that greater women’s representation in a party’s parliamentary delegation significantly warms opponents’ feelings towards that party. That is, all else equal, when a political party elects more women to the legislature, opposing parties’ supporters have more positive feelings about that party. This is especially true for left-leaning citizens, who feel better about parties that have more women politicians.

Overall, the authors demonstrate that the gender composition of political parties’ elected officials has important implications for distrust and hostility across party lines. The results are promising for policy makers, as they suggest that parties can defuse animosity while also providing better descriptive gender representation. But, there can be downsides to this affective bonus too. Women in politics are especially likely to bear the burden of partisan rancor, and extremist or illiberal parties could strategically deploy these findings to improve their image and attract more voters.

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