Do External Threats Unite or Divide? Security Crises, Rivalries, and Polarization in American Foreign Policy

Journal Article (Journal Article)

A common explanation for the increasing polarization in contemporary American foreign policy is the absence of external threat. I identify two mechanisms through which threats could reduce polarization: by revealing information about an adversary that elicits a bipartisan response from policymakers (information mechanism) and by heightening the salience of national relative to partisan identity (identity mechanism). To evaluate the information mechanism, study 1 uses computational text analysis of congressional speeches to explore whether security threats reduce partisanship in attitudes toward foreign adversaries. To evaluate the identity mechanism, study 2 uses public opinion polls to assess whether threats reduce affective polarization among the public. Study 3 tests both mechanisms in a survey experiment that heightens a security threat from China. I find that the external threat hypothesis has limited ability to explain either polarization in US foreign policy or affective polarization among the American public. Instead, responses to external threats reflect the domestic political environment in which they are introduced. The findings cast doubt on predictions that new foreign threats will inherently create partisan unity.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Myrick, R

Published Date

  • August 17, 2021

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 75 / 4

Start / End Page

  • 921 - 958

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1531-5088

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0020-8183

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1017/S0020818321000175

Citation Source

  • Scopus