Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Media pundit Howard Fineman begins his Huffpost Politics column today by asking, “Why is America on the edge of a political and fiscal nervous breakdown?” He goes on to answer his own question by providing, as the essay title neatly summarizes, “15 Reasons Why American Politics Has Become An Apocalyptic Mess”. With the exception of gerrymandering, I think a plausible case can be made that at least 13 of the 15 reasons Fineman cites contribute, at least in part (in some cases a very small part), to the current polarized political climate in Washington. DC. (Despite persistent media claims to the contrary, political scientists don’t find much evidence that gerrymandering contributes to partisan polarization.) To be sure, Fineman’s essay would be more useful if he provided some relative ranking of the various reasons in terms of their impact on polarization, but on the whole I don’t think he does serious injustice to the topic.
Except for Reason 5. Under the heading “Two Cultures” Fineman writes: “Americans used to inhabit a world of shared social mores, even if millions of people were coerced into accepting them. Now voters now live in two barely overlapping moral worlds: Secular Metropolitan America and Biblical Traditional America. Americans can spend most of their waking hours enveloped in one journalistic gestalt or another, staring at one cable show/website version of reality or the other. It makes political differences harder to bridge.”
Fineman is not the first to make this assertion, of course; the claim that we are a deeply polarized along cultural and moral lines dates back at least to 1992, when Pat Buchanan used his address during the Republican presidential convention to warn of an ongoing religious and cultural war for the “soul of America”. In the aftermath of the 2004 election, political wags divided the U.S into a Republican-oriented “Jesusland” and a Democratic-leaning “United States of Canada”. And, as my last post notes, journalists continue to trumpet the theme of a deeply polarized America today, most noticeably during reporting about the government shutdown. Fineman is but the latest, but undoubtedly not the last, media pundit to make this claim.
The problem, of course, is that the evidence indicates that Americans are not polarized along party lines – at least not any more than they were five decades ago. Indeed, if anything, they are perhaps less polarized, particularly when it comes to cultural issues. Here are two charts, courtesy of Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina, that show the partisan and ideological trend lines among Americans during the period 1952-2008. Let’s look first at partisanship.
As you can see, then, the trend lines indicate that the number of Americans who self-identify as independents (including leaners) is on the rise, albeit slightly, across the last five decades, while the portion of self-identified moderates (again including leaners) has remained largely stable. This is hardly the picture of an increasingly polarized people. We find similar patterns when we ask Americans their views on key cultural issues, such as abortion.
And while Fineman is correct that the cable news shows do present two diametrically different portraits of the political world, the reality is that even the most popular such shows draw proportionally few viewers. Bill O’Reilly’s “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox, one of the most popular political talk shows on cable, draws about 3.5 million viewers on an average night. Rachel Maddow may draw .5 million on a good night. But 12 million viewers watched the season premiere of Duck Dynasty on cable, and about 8 million watched this epic shot by Big Papi:
Polarized? Not among Americans. And not here in Red Sox Nation.
And really, aren’t they the same thing?