Psychology in Politics: Why Partisanship is so Extreme in 2020

by Emma Baumgartel

During the months before the election this year, we saw a COVID-19 virus spike so extreme that hospitals were overwhelmed, and a new wave of shutdowns began. As we entered November, it became clear how polarized our nation had become over health and safety issues—problems that have basic moral foundations. It made me wonder why people become so divided over these issues when they seem generally to agree on moral philosophies such as the care and conservation of humanity.

When COVID-19 first became known in March, it seemed as though every person, no matter their political affiliation, had similar priorities: to learn about the virus and how to prevent its spread. However, as the election drew near, things shifted. Conflicts arose over whether measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing should be followed. All the while, cases were steadily increasing, and more and more people were contracting serious cases of the virus across the nation.

The election revealed how truly split U.S. citizens are over the issue of a deadly virus and illuminated how divided our country can become over problems with basic moral foundations. For most people, protecting the elderly and other high-risk populations would be considered a moral incentive. However, partisan divide has diminished the concern for people that are at high risk. Multiple social psychology studies have been done to investigate why political polarization has grown so extreme in the past few years, even over issues with humanitarian principles. One study conducted by Walter and Redlawsk, published in Political Psychology, found that both Republican and Democrat participants displayed more negativity if a moral code was connected to a political party that opposed their own. This shows that moral issues, which normally should have a larger consensus, become compromised purely due to extreme partisanship.

It is imperative that our country is able to heal from this divide and begin to agree despite political differences. This is especially true over issues with moral foundations. As insurmountable as the political divide seems right now, there is hope for more cooperation in the future. Though many believe creating a more proportional voting system will solve many of these issues, there are ways citizens can start to repair conflicts between themselves on an individual level. It is important that individuals begin to focus less on party loyalty and more on humanitarian concerns. This shift in focus begins with cultivating empathy. Though it may sound cliché, respectful listening towards those of an opposing group is invaluable. When two people are able to hear the other’s personal reasons for their beliefs, less partisanship is involved and the person listening is able to see the other as an individual—not just part of a political system. Some effective strategies for building empathy between opposing sides involve not interrupting while the opposition is speaking, avoiding anger, and verbally acknowledging points made by the opposition. Click here to learn more about using empathy during conflicts over politics and COVID-19.

Cultivating empathy for the opposition will hopefully lead to more ethical thinking and less of a “party-first” attitude. Though collective action between parties seems incredibly challenging right now, it is my biggest hope for the New Year that people on both sides listen, empathize with others, and reflect on their own beliefs to form a more cooperative nation.

About Emma Baumgartel

Emma Baumgartel is an incoming senior at Lake Forest College in Illinois, majoring in Psychology with a minor in English Writing. Baumgartel previously attended Richwoods High School. She has always enjoyed writing—especially about current events and psychology—and believes in advocating for the truth. At Lake Forest, Emma was a writing tutor as well as an editor for Inter-text, LF’s social science journal. Next semester, Baumgartel plans on joining the college newspaper to gain more writing experience. After graduation, Emma is planning on continuing to submit articles to online publications, as well as a blog on She also hopes to land a professional content writing or marketing role.