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You’re a Grand Old Polarizing Flag

New research suggests exposure to the stars and stripes nudges Americans to more intensely support their political party.
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(Photo: Ben White/Unsplash)

(Photo: Ben White/Unsplash)

Our intense political polarization has been blamed on many culprits, from partisan news sources to ideologically segregated neighborhoods. Well, new research points to yet another catalyst, one that may be fluttering outside your window this very moment: the American flag.

A new study finds exposure to the stars and stripes spurs both Democrats and Republicans to more intensely support their party and its positions on hot-button issues.

“The same cue can mean different things to different people,” writes psychologist Eugene Chan of Monash University in Australia. “To Democrats, being American is to support Democratic values, but to Republicans, being American is to support Republican values.”

Chan’s study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, featured 752 Americans recruited online (with a mean age 41), all of whom identified themselves as either Democrats or Republicans. After providing basic demographic information (including party affiliation), all were introduced to the (fictional) research company that was conducting the study. For half of the participants, this information “was accompanied by a color picture of the American flag at the top of the web page.”

All were then presented with a list of seven public-policy concerns, including education, health care, homeland security, and veterans affairs. Using a scale of one (do not support) to nine (strongly support), participants indicated the degree to which they felt the federal government should spend money on each. Finally, using that same nine-point scale, they indicated the degree to which they support their political party.

“Being exposed to the flag increased Democrats’ and Republicans’ support for their own — but not the other — party,” Chan reports. Both Democrats and Republicans who were exposed to the image of Old Glory expressed stronger support for their party’s priorities, but not for issues associated with the other party.

The results are something of a surprise in that several previous studies, including one we wrote about in 2015, found exposure to the flag subtly pushed Americans in a more conservative direction. (Others came to different conclusions.) But, as Chan explains, there may not be a contradiction between their results and his.

It’s entirely possible that the concept of conservatism entered the minds of participants who were exposed to the flag. If so, the thought made Democrats bristle, and Republicans proud. Both reflexes pushed participants to more strongly support their own party.

More study will be needed to determine if that’s what’s actually triggering these results. But whatever the mechanism, Chan’s finding that the flag perpetuates polarization is darkly ironic, since the red, white, and blue banner supposedly signifies American unity.

To update Frances Scott Key: Oh, say, can you see/past your ideology?