Party affiliation is the new racism

We all know the partisan divide in the country has gotten pretty bad, or at least so we are told by our social media overlords. And according to this same line of thinking, it’s significantly worse than it was in the “good old days.” (Defining when those allegedly good days were will likely depend on your age group.) But has it really gotten to the point where ideological affiliation between conservatives and liberals is really replacing racism as the worst line of conflict in American society?

That’s essentially the point being suggested by Clemson Professor Philip L. Roth at The Hill this week. Roth was part of a group that conducted a pair of studies of professional employment recruiters to see if there was any impact on which job candidates they would rate the highest based on indications as to which political party or ideological group the candidates were associated with. (I should note that Roth doesn’t explicitly say “racism” here, but rather the more generic term “discrimination.”)

The description of the study is worth reading. They created a series of Facebook pages and other social media signatures for potential job candidates that might turn up during a recruiter’s normal background searches. In one study there were obvious clues, such as the applicant putting a donkey or an elephant on their page along with a statement about being vice president of campus Democrats or Republicans. In the other study, the clues were more subtle, demonstrating support of various political positions such as pro-abortion or pro-life signals, or support for either Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter.

Perhaps more tellingly, they embedded specific information about the relative qualifications, scholastic achievements, and job experience pertinent to the position being sought. Some applicants were clearly more or less qualified than others, mixed randomly among those of different perceived party affiliations. The results, as Roth reports, were rather stunning.

In both studies, the pattern of results were similar. The job applicant was evaluated more positively when the rater’s political affiliation “matched” the applicant (e.g., D rater and D applicant) compared to when the rater’s political affiliation did not match (e.g., D rater and R applicant). A match influenced how much the rater felt similar to, liked, and endorsed the applicant’s potential to perform well on a job.

Particularly surprising was that information about job qualifications had no bearing on this tendency to give either more positive or more negative ratings based on match or mismatch. Stated differently, even when the applicant was better qualified, if there was a mismatch in political affiliation the applicant was rated more negatively.

Assuming these results are valid, that’s a pretty startling trend. Recruiters were willing to almost entirely ignore the relative qualifications of candidates in favor of someone matching their personal political ideology. That means that companies using their services or employing them directly as recruiters are passing over the best talent available in favor of people with “comfortable” political leanings. That’s a recipe for a company losing its competitive edge.

But is it actually “discrimination” to do this? It’s obviously illegal to discriminate in employment based on the applicant’s race, gender, religion, or other legally defined factors. But I’m not aware of any laws stating you can’t refuse to hire somebody based on their party registration.

It probably shouldn’t be all that shocking, however. We’ve seen similar effects in the past. Previous studies have shown that white employers (or recruiters) who never met nor saw a picture of applicants were more likely to schedule an interview with candidates having “white-sounding” names. Whether or not you got a chance at the job could come down to the difference between spelling your first name Mark or Marc. The last name Johnson would probably get you in the door faster than Rodriguez or Yang.

But even knowing that, I found the results of this study shocking. Personally, I’ve long maintained that most of society still isn’t as harshly divided along political lines as the media makes us out to be. It’s just vastly amplified online, largely among people who carry out these fights anonymously. In real life, people tend to be far more polite and accommodating. (Maybe I’ve just lead a charmed life?) But even if they are acting politely, that doesn’t mean they might not discriminate against you when you apply for a job. This is some alarming news to say the least.