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Conservatives and Asymmetric Polarization

Annelise Russell

Party politics, as part of both the public and political agenda, seems ever present as political debates devolve into partisan wars and political gamesmanship. Former President Donald Trump, both before and after his 2016 election, has been regarded as a driver of partisan rhetoric. He has not only “gone public” but has gone “partisan” (Rottinghaus, 2013), so much that he was suspended from Twitter in 2021.

While many suggest he ushered in a new era of partisan priorities, in reality, the precursor to that political gamesmanship can be found years prior in the communication tactics of the U.S. Senate. The chamber is no stranger to partisan rhetoric on Twitter, and Trump’s Republican colleagues in Washington D.C. are well versed in blaming their Democratic counterparts for policy failures. While it is not always Republicans playing partisan politics, this chapter highlights how members of the Republican Party are turning up the partisan rhetoric on Twitter more readily than their Democratic counterparts.

In the Senate—once thought to be above the politics of the House of Representatives—social media has given politicians a new voice to connect with voters and to signal their political agenda with negative and partisan messages. One in ten tweets by senators now evoke partisan rhetoric, either laying blame on partisan foes or building up their own party’s successes. This pattern suggests partisanship is part of the information they share with journalists, constituents, and special interests. But not all senators are prioritizing politics in the same way, and how they play partisan games differs.

Even before Donald Trump’s Twitter rants, Republicans in the Senate have been taking partisan rhetoric to new levels, turning to Twitter to express support for their own party and chastise their Democratic counterparts. While both parties hurl passive aggressive insults online, I find that Republicans in 2013 and

2015 were more likely to engage in politically tinged communication when they turned to Twitter. This pattern mimics the asymmetric patterns of party polarization in the Senate that suggest Republicans have moved further away from the center than the Democrats. Even when Republicans hold the majority in both chambers of Congress, as they did in 2015, Republican senators are more likely to prioritize politics in their daily communication on social media (Russell, 2018).

In this chapter, I examine how senators integrate partisan rhetoric into their public agendas on Twitter during the 113th and 115th Congress. Partisan rhetoric includes those tweets that include explicit mentions of either party, that is, “Senate Democrats,” “Republican House,” “@GOPBudgetor representatives of the party, that is, “Democratic President” or “Senate Majority Leader.” When it comes to communicating political priorities on Twitter, Republicans are more likely to allocate attention to party politics and elections. I find evidence that when they do engage in politics, those tweets by Republicans are more likely to include partisan rhetoric, both attacking their Democratic counterparts in Congress or the White House and signaling support for their own party. Even when Republicans control the Senate as the majority party, as they did in 2015, they are still more likely to turn to Twitter and highlight their political priorities.

The next step is to understand whether partisan political agendas shift during the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency when Republicans operated under united government. I offer a brief analysis of two weeks of senators’ tweets in February 2017 (~5,000 tweets) to start analyzing how the president and united government shift: the partisan rhetoric in Congress. The initial results suggest Democratic senators use more attacking partisan rhetoric when they no longer hold the White House and engage in partisan rhetoric with a president who is eager to stoke the political flames. But Republicans are not shying away from political priorities either as they maintain their levels of partisan rhetoric, even when they control the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. This finding raises the question of whether Democrats may be more like their Republican counterparts in the era of President Trump and whether Republicans have adopted patterns of partisan rhetoric that are lasting regardless of their vote share in Congress. If Democrats reverse the trend in partisan priorities on Twitter, partisan rhetoric in Congress may be driven less by the asymmetric polarization in Congress, but by who is in the White House.

Party Polarization in Congress

Several chapters in this book have addressed party polarization. For the current purposes, polarization in Congress has only escalated since the 1970s (Heth- erington, 2001; Levendusky, 2009), and scholars find the rate of escalation by Republicans is greater relative to their Democratic counterparts (McCarty, Poole, & Rosenthal, 2006). Hacker and Pierson (2006) suggest the extremism is due to Republican power brokers instead of a steadily shifting conservative public. These party leaders angle for more conservative policy positions and maintain their bargaining position through electoral threats and control of the party agenda. Alternative explanations of extreme partisanship suggest the base of the Republican Party, and the party’s ideological makeup cultivates partisan positions (Grossman & Hopkins, 2016). Democrats are defined by their coalition or are constituent based compared to ideologically driven Republicans, and the asymmetry in party polarization derives from the asymmetry in party support and function. This chapter builds on these measured partisan differences in polarization to explore whether senators’ rhetoric in their Twitter agenda reflects the greater shift by Republicans toward partisan extremes.

Communicating Partisan Political Agendas

Twitter is a fundamental shift in how partisanship is communicated that has the potential to end far beyond Congress. Twitter has the potential to extend the political discussions outside of formal political institutions (Shogan, 2010) and gives political actors the tools to control the messages they send to journalists and constituents (Gainous & Wagner, 2014). A senator no longer has to accept how information is contextualized or edited by journalists because they are setting the terms of debate they wish to broadcast to their followers. Social media changes the nature of political discourse and how politicians connect with constituents because there is now a direct line between a senator’s expressed priorities and his followers. That direct line comes with minimal cost and added accessibility (Straus, Shogan, Williams, & Classman, 2016). Twitter cannot necessarily create political credibility, but it does give politicians the tools to maintain or sustain credibility (Hwang, 2013).

Journalists pay attention to Twitter because it is a shortcut and cheap signal to monitor politicians’ activity. Twitter is also an accessible, direct communication with constituents. Anyone can follow a Twitter account, and it has no media gatekeeper to pass the message along. Members who tweet have a two-shot opportunity to get people to pay attention to their preferences because they can share their priorities directly or with the understanding that informal institutions like special interests or the media pick up those signals and translate them for the masses. Twitter cannot build a favorable reputation, but it can lead to favorable evaluations of politicians that increase perceived credibility (Hwang, 2013).

Social media is the common thread in many new studies of political campaigns (Straus et al., 2016; Honey & Herring, 2009). An increasing number of congressional communication studies consider lawmakers’ patterns of Twitter adoption and the individual or institutional characteristics that drive them to use it. Many member characteristics that typically affect behavior in Congress, such as constituency or electoral success, have little effect on a member’s decision to use Twitter (Lassen & Brown, 2011). Straus, Glassman, Shogan, and Smelcer (2013) compile data from the 111th Congress and theorize that members adopt Twitter to represent a broader constituency that spans a national and global audience. In another analysis of Twitter adoption during the 111th Congress, Peterson (2012) finds strong Republican and ideological effects for adoption in the House of Representatives and also considers a member’s cohort as a significant predictor.

Moving from Twitter adoption to regular use as an agenda-setting platform is the next step to building a more complete picture of congressional Twitter use. An early study of policymaker Twitter use looks at members’ Twitter patterns during two 1-week periods in 2009—during lawmakers’ normalization of the platform (Glassman, Straus, & Shogan, 2010). The most frequent type of Twitter communications were press and web link tweets, which comprised 43% to 46% of tweets (Glassman et al., 2010). Twitter is a daily megaphone for senators’ agendas similar to how politicians use more traditional forms of media (Gol- beck, Grimes, & Rogers, 2010). Research on congressional tweets in 2009 finds that members of Congress tweet informational messages most often and spend less time actually communicating directly with followers. Their use of this social media platform is more of a campaign rally than a listening session.

Perpetuating Partisan Rhetoric on Social Media

Politicians systematically differ in how they communicate their partisan interests on the campaign (Gainous & Wagner, 2014; Evans, Cordova, & Sipole, 2014), but those partisan patterns extend into the halls of Congress. Republicans’ greater ideological distance from the center in the Senate increases the divide between the parties and thus how they communicate partisan rhetoric should also reflect this divide. I expect that party influence extends to senators’ daily Twitter communications, such that Republicans more often use partisan rhetoric relative to their Democratic counterparts. Social media and online platforms are valuable attention-seeking tools, and I expect Republican senators will use them to communicate their partisan interests, especially given the sometimes hostile relationship with the 2013 Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democratic president. Republican senators dissatisfied with the status quo—and who have less influence over the institutional agenda—have less recourse within the institution, so they seek out nonlegislative tools like Twitter to direct attention to their desired issues and control the flow of information (Gainous & Wagner, 2014; Lassen & Brown, 2011).

Even when Republicans control Congress and the presidency, I do not expect these partisan patterns to reverse. Since 2017, Donald Trump has further normalized partisan politics on Twitter, and that only entrenches the partisan divide in Congress and how senators communicate with each other and constituents.

I expect Democrats to increase their rhetoric to counter the partisan politics coming from the White House, but I do not expect the Republicans to reduce their attention to party politics. The president may serve as a lightning rod that increases the partisan rhetoric of minority parties in Congress, but that influence also affects Republican members who must defend their party and remain active players in the political games.

Measuring Partisanship on Twitter

Twitter is a hybrid media outlet that invites research on the partisan patterns in the Senate because it has become an increasingly polarized chamber similar to the House of Representatives (Theriault, 2006, 2008). This chapter analyzes the first six months of the 113th Congress—the first session in which all senators were on Twitter—and the first six months of the 114th Congress—after Republicans took majority control. Additionally, I test a sample of 5,000 tweets from February 2017 to examine partisan patterns under Republican-unified government to assess whether asymmetric partisan patterns remain consistent. These tweets from senators in 2013, 2015, and 2017 were collected via a Pvthon-based web scraper that utilized the Twitter API to collect approximately 95,000 tweets over the two years. I select these time periods because elections have just been held, and my interest is outside of the campaign environment. A senator’s Twitter agenda is collected from his verified Twitter account, either managed individually or by the member’s press office. The account is either the member’s only account or their office account, as campaign accounts were not included because my interest is specifically on communications while in government.

Senators utilize their Twitter accounts with varying degrees of regularity. During 2013 and 2015, the number of tweets by user varies greatly over both congressional sessions by both user and political party. Republican Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho totaled 1,127 tweets in 2013, but Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby totaled just 12. Similarly, in 2015, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey totaled more than 2,000 tweets and Republican Jim Risch from Idaho had 58. The average senator sent about 50 tweets per month in 2013 and 90 tweets per month in 2015.

In 2013, Democrats sent more tweets than Republicans—reflecting their member advantage as the majority party—but the 2015 Republican majority shift did not alter this pattern (Table 10.1). Democrats as the minority in 2015 were still more likely to communicate on Twitter. If we consider the percent of tweets that include partisan rhetoric, the average Democratic senator in 2013 included partisan rhetoric in 4.5% of those total tweets versus a Republican who included partisan rhetoric in 17.3% of their tweets. Across both 2013 and 2015, the average and median Republican senator had a higher proportion of tweets with partisan rhetoric (Table 10.1). Democrats may be slightly more active on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean they are using more partisan rhetoric.

To understand the types of partisan rhetoric being used, I code tweets for positive and negative tone. Those tweets that include partisan rhetoric are coded according to the tone or type of partisanship: negative and positive party rhetoric. Negative partisan rhetoric uses language expected by ugly politics where

TABLE 10.1 Summary Statistics: Partisan Rhetoric as a Proportion of All Senators’Tweets in 2013 and 2015.


Tweet Total



Std. Dev.
































politicians redirect blame toward the other party (Sinclair, 2006; Theriault, 2013). Tweets are coded as negative if they are critical in their explicit mention of either (1) the other party or (2) representatives of the other party.

Party loyalty rhetoric signals favoritism or support for one’s own party, such as promoting your party’s candidates in upcoming elections, signaling party-specific legislation, or highlighting the party’s policy successes. These messages advertise party loyalty to both the party’s leadership and the strong partisans on Twitter. Messages in this category are most often direct messages of support for individual party members or the party’s legislative agenda (“The #SenateDems bill to help families”).

When considering both positive and negative rhetoric together, I find that that attention to party politics on Twitter shifts according to party affiliation. Republican agendas on Twitter include a higher proportion of partisan messages. Republicans in 2013 allocated more agenda space to tweets including partisan rhetoric than Democratic counterparts, and even when Republicans took over the majority in 2015, they sent nearly twice as many tweets with partisan rhetoric. This is an important finding given previous studies have shown that the “out-group” or the “underdog” is most driven to social media and issues attacks to gain leverage over the majority (Gainous & Wagner, 2014; Evans, 2016; Auter & Fine, 2016). Even when the Republicans are no longer the minority party in the Senate, on Twitter they still behave like the “underdog” in their use of partisan rhetoric. This asymmetric use of partisan rhetoric matches my expectations that partisan rhetoric is not just a function of minority status in Congress but remains consistently more common among Republicans even when they control the Senate. The rate of partisan escalation by Republicans is greater relative to their Democratic counterparts both by legislative and nonlegislative actions (Hacker & Pierson, 2006).

Senate Republicans spend more agenda space on partisan rhetoric, and when I disaggregate the rhetoric by tone, I find Republicans maintain higher levels of both positive and negative tweets (Figures 10.1 and 10.2). In 2013, 17% of Republicans’ tweets included partisan rhetoric, and two-thirds of those partisan tweets included negative or attacking rhetoric. In that same year about 5% of

Percentage ofPartisan Tweets by Tone (2013)

FIGURE 10.1 Percentage ofPartisan Tweets by Tone (2013)

Percentage ofPartisan Tweets by Tone (2015)

FIGURE 10.2 Percentage ofPartisan Tweets by Tone (2015)

all Democratic tweets included partisan rhetoric, and that 5% was split evenly between messages of party support (positive) and antagonizing messages toward Republicans (negative). In 2015, the Senate majority flipped to the Republicans, but I find no evidence of a reversal in partisan rhetoric on Twitter. If attention to party politics was explained by majority status, partisan tweets sent by Democrats would have increased substantially. Democrats’ partisan rhetoric increased modestly—this is expected given that Republicans now controlled the Senate status quo—but the partisan trend is not reversed. In 2015, the percentage of partisan tweets by Democrats increased by about one, and Republicans’ partisan tweets dropped by almost 6%, but tweets from Republicans were still twice as likely to include partisan rhetoric. The use of polarizing rhetoric is still more common among Republicans, regardless of majority party, similar to findings of asymmetric polarization in alternative congressional behaviors.

Previewing 2017

Four years before the effect of President Donald Trump’s morning Twitter battles, Republicans in Congress were already prioritizing partisan politics in their

TABLE 10.2 Summary Statistics: Partisan Rhetoric as Proportion of All Senators’Tweets in February 2017.


Tweet Total



Std. Dev.

















routine communications. I didn’t expect President Trump to change Republican partisan behavior, but the effect of his tweets and political fervor may have drawn Democrats into political games of name-calling and blame. I collect and code all tweets by senators from February 1 to February 14, 2017, totaling 5,669 total tweets. Of this two-week sample of tweets. Democrats sent 3,650 and Republicans sent 2,019 tweets. Democrats in 2013 and 2015 sent more tweets than their Republican counterparts, but the difference between the two parties is even more striking as the average Democrat sent about 75 tweets compared to 41 for a Republican.

If we consider the percentage of tweets that include partisan rhetoric, combining both positive and negative rhetoric, the average Democratic senator in 2013 included partisan rhetoric in 17.3% of total tweets versus a Republican who included partisan rhetoric in 13.9% of their tweets. The average and median Democratic senator had a higher proportion of tweets with partisan rhetoric (Table 10.2).

Democrats appear more active on Twitter, and the descriptive statistics suggest they are using more partisan rhetoric. The percentage of partisan rhetoric by Democratic senators over two weeks in 2017 is similar to Republican partisan totals in 2013. In both instances, the minority party sent a higher percentage of partisan tweets than the majority. For the Republicans, their use of partisan rhetoric increased 2% from 2015. Democrats in the minority significantly increased their partisan rhetoric, but this suggests that Republicans in the majority will not necessarily avoid political rhetoric in their communications. While minority status may bolster the Democrats’ rhetoric, majority status does not mean Republicans shy away from highlighting their party’s successes and Democratic failures. Members of the Republican Party' may still be more likely to use partisan rhetoric regardless of their status within the chamber, given that in 2017 they controlled both chambers of Congress and the Presidency (see Figure 10.3).


Twitter is changing the game in Congress such that members are routinely using the platform for their own partisan priorities. And just as the policy priorities of a legislature can shift, so too can the political priorities of individual senators.

Percentage of Partisan Tweets by Tone (2017)

FIGURE 10.3 Percentage of Partisan Tweets by Tone (2017)

In 2013 and 2015, Democrats in the Senate devoted far less agenda space on partisan rhetoric; however, after the election of President Donald Trump, their tendency to blame their political opponents and hurl partisan attacks increases three-fold during a two-week period in 2017. Democrats may be responding to the heightened partisan environment and the new executive. Minority party legislators tend to use more partisan rhetoric to attack the majority party and gain an advantage despite the majority party’s control of the legislative agenda and chamber floor. Minority members are also more likely to use the media to chastise the president and often turn negative relative to majority party lawmakers (Groeling, 2010).

While Democrats’ partisan rhetoric patterns are what we expect from a minority party, the Republican rhetoric on Twitter remains relatively high for a party in control of both Houses of Congress and the presidency. Republicans spent more time signaling intraparty support and actually increased their overall percentage of partisan rhetoric on Twitter. As a majority party, we might expect the percentage of their Twitter agenda dedicated to partisan priorities to shrink, but Republicans actually maintained their levels of partisan rhetoric and particularly increased their positive support for the GOP brand. This suggests that even in the era of Donald Trump, Republicans in Congress will still maintain higher levels of partisan rhetoric than their Democratic counterparts or at least match those levels when they are in the majority. While Democrats’ partisan communication may be more fluid depending on their position within Congress and with the executive, Republicans appear to maintain their partisan political agendas regardless. This suggests the asymmetric patterns of party polarization where Republicans move further to the right can still be found in their partisan rhetoric when they control Congress and the White House.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Are the patterns of polarization in Congress similar to those patterns of polarization among the public? Are these patterns of elite rhetoric mimicked elsewhere?
  • 2. If Republican senators are spending more time on partisan rhetoric in Congress, what does that mean for the type of representation constituents can expect from their elected officials?
  • 3. The core of the Democratic and Republican Party rely on different values, how do these underlying norms of each party influence the rhetoric they use in Congress?


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