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Political Competition, Partisanship and Interpersonal Trust in Electoral Democracies

  • Ryan E. Carlin and Gregory J. Love

How does democratic politics inform the interdisciplinary debate on the evolution of human co-operation and the social preferences (for example, trust, altruism and reciprocity) that support it? This article advances a theory of partisan trust discrimination in electoral democracies based on social identity, cognitive heuristics and interparty competition. Evidence from behavioral experiments in eight democracies show ‘trust gaps’ between co- and rival partisans are ubiquitous, and larger than trust gaps based on the social identities that undergird the party system. A natural experiment found that partisan trust gaps in the United States disappeared immediately following the killing of Osama bin Laden. But observational data indicate that partisan trust gaps track with perceptions of party polarization in all eight cases. Finally, the effects of partisanship on trust outstrip minimal group treatments, yet minimal-group effects are on par with the effects of most treatments for ascriptive characteristics in the literature. In sum, these findings suggest political competition dramatically shapes the salience of partisanship in interpersonal trust, the foundation of co-operation.

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Department of Political Science, Georgia State University (email:; Department of Political Science, University of Mississippi (email: The authors gratefully acknowledge financial support from Georgia State University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, Center for Human Rights and Democracy, and University Research Services Administration. Many thanks to our local collaborators: Allyson Benton, Fernanda Boidi, Abby Córdova, Alejandro Díaz-Domínguez, Estefania Domínguez, Pedro Magalhães, Sergio Martini, Robert Mattes, Álvaro Neira, Mauricio Olivares, Rosario Queirolo, Alexandra Searle, Mariano Torcal, Ludwig van Bedolla, Ivania Villa-Alta, and Daniel Young. For feedback on the project and drafts we thank Rosario Aguilar, Andy Baker, Ryan Bakker, Jason Barabas, Fernanda Boidi, James Cox, Christopher Dawes, Raymond Duch, Catherine Eckel, James Fowler, Ana Carolina Garriga, Jonathan Hartlyn, Timothy Hellwig, Cindy Kam, Josepsh Klesner, Reuben Kline, Peter Loewen, Neil Malhotra, Kristin Michelitch, Brian Paciotti, Lucio Renno, Jason Reifler, Sean Richey, Rodolfo Sarsfield, Mitchell Seligson, Shane Singh, John Sholz, Mariano Torcal, Rick Wilson, Elizabeth Zechmeister, and participants in talks delivered at the Universidad Central, University of Georgia, Florida State University, Vanderbilt University, University of Mississippi, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, CIDE Mexico and New York University. All remaining errors are our own. Data replication sets are available at, and online appendices are available at

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