The Relationship between Associational Membership and Political Polarization

by
Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
October 4, 2011

RSF Visiting Scholar Delia Baldassarri published an article in the September edition of Social Science Quarterly. The article, entitled "Partisan Joiners: Associational Membership and Political Polarization in the United States (1974-2004)," seeks to "systematically relate dynamics of political division and polarization to changes in associational life and civic engagement." Baldassarri explains:

In this article I examine the interplay between associational membership and political partisanship, and ask if there is any evidence of increased political polarization in the associative patterns of Americans. The goal is to assess to what extent the polarization of party members and political activists is complemented by a similar dynamic in civic life. To address this question, I look at changes over time in the partisanship of associational groups, comparing the partisan allegiances of group members to those of nonmembers, and analyzing the network of interorganizational relations generated by overlapping memberships.

Looking at the intersection of different social spheres from a macro perspective, I conclude that U.S. civil society is not becoming more polarized. The analysis shows that the observed decline in civic engagement has not reduced the overall level of integration of civic networks, and that there are no signs of increased polarization in patterns of overlapping memberships: nor do divergent associational patterns emerge when comparing the subpopulations of Democrats and Republicans. Nonetheless, while political partisanship does not drive patterns of group affiliation, group joiners tend to be more partisan than the overall population: group members, especially those belonging to multiple groups, are more radical in their partisan identification than nonmembers, and most types of groups have become politically more heterogeneous over time. To make sense of these findings, in the discussion, I advance the hypothesis that polarization of civil society is occurring at the level of actual groups, and not group types.

Read the full article here.

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