Is America Really Polarized? About That Pew Report…

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Amid more than a little fanfare, the Pew Research Center released the result of its most recent survey of Americans’ political values based on responses from more than 10,000 adults polled between January and March of this year. Its conclusion? “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.” In support of that assessment, the Center provides a wealth of data summarizing not just the survey responses dealing with political views, but also a host of related demographic variables, such as where Democrats and Republicans live, as well as some fascinating graphics such as this one purporting to show the growing ideological divide in American politics.

Understandably, in covering the release of the Pew Report, many journalists  keyed their story to the theme embraced by Pew’s Center President Alan Murray in his (over?)heated summary of the divided state of politics in America. That meant primarily focusing on the data suggesting a deepening partisan public divide in which Republicans and Democrats increasingly don’t like each other.

However, it’s not clear that this should be the journalists’ primary takeaway from the Pew Report. In fact, if you dig more deeply into the Report, there is evidence suggesting that the partisan cleavage is not quite a pervasive as the prevailing media coverage suggests. As the Pew authors acknowledge further down in the Report: “These sentiments are not shared by all – or even most – Americans. The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.” Readers may wonder why no editorials were written highlighting the fact that, according to the survey results, most Americans do not seem to be pure partisans, and that they believe in compromise as a means for solving political problems!

The answer may be that the authors thought the bigger story is changes in levels of partisanship that have come to characterize American politics in recent decades. But even here we need to be careful in assessing the Report’s conclusions. As I’ve discussed in earlier Presidential Power posts, we should not to mistake a process of party sorting as evidence of growing ideological polarization. Consider the Report’s statement that, “Looking at 10 political values questions tracked since 1994, more Democrats now give uniformly liberal responses, and more Republicans give uniformly conservative responses than at any point in the last 20 years.” Contrary to what some might initially conclude, this doesn’t necessarily indicate increasing ideological polarization at the individual level. Instead, as Morris Fiorina has argued, it may instead reflect a process in which more liberals now consider themselves Democrats, and more conservatives self-identify as Republicans, than was case when Pew first conducted this survey two decades ago – even if the number of conservatives and liberals has not changed appreciably in that time.

To see what I mean by party sorting, consider two archetypal baby boomer Americans – let’s call them Johnny South, and Billy North. Johnny’s political views owe much to his South Carolina roots where he was born, raised ans still lives.  These  beliefs include support for a strong military and a muscular foreign policy, a populist streak that supports some types of government spending on infrastructure and commodity subsidies, but a strong aversion to federal intervention into private social mores. Johnny’s counterpart, Billy North, is a life-long New Yorker and, like Johnny, his residence has helped shaped Billy’s political views. Billy is strongly against jingoist military intervention in foreign affairs, is moderate – even progressive – on many social issues, but is also a staunch fiscal conservative.

How do these views translate into political behavior? In the 1950’s, 60’s and even into the 70’s, Johnny usually voted Democratic in congressional elections, but he could be persuaded on occasion to vote Republican in presidential elections, as was the case in 1972 when he backed Richard Nixon. Longtime Democrat Fritz Hollings, however, was his political hero. During this same time period Billy typically voted Republican at the Congressional level, but he too would occasionally pull the Democratic lever, as when he backed LBJ in the 1964 presidential election. Billy’s political hero through much of this time is Nelson Rockefeller.

The point is that although both Johnny and Billy had coherent and largely stable ideological views, neither self-identified comfortably with one of the two major parties during most of this period; indeed, they occasionally supported the opposing party candidate and on more than one occasion split their vote between the two parties. Now jump ahead forty years. Neither Johnny nor Billy has changed their political views – but their party affiliations and voting habits have undergone a significant transformation across four decades. Today, Johnny consistently votes Republican in national elections – he is a strong supporter of South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, and he backed both McCain and Romney in 2008 and ’12, respectively. Billy, on the other hand, cast his last Republican vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984’s presidential election. Since then has uniformly voted the straight Democratic ticket in all national elections.

What changed? Not Johnny and Billy’s political beliefs – they did not become more conservative or liberal. Instead, what changed was their understanding of what it meant to be a Republican and a Democrat. That is, they resorted themselves into a particular party – and that is precisely the process, carried out by many people, that the Pew Survey has picked up on and highlighted in their most recent report. Given this process of party sorting, we should not be surprised that increasingly Republicans view Democrats as out of step with the times, and that Democrats similarly have heightened antipathy toward Republicans. The fact is that their view of the opposing party has become less positive as both parties have become more uniformly composed of liberals and conservatives, respectively.  To repeat, then, Americans’ views haven’t necessarily become more ideologically extreme – they just fit better under a particular party label.  That is why Pew shows a growing consistency between ideology and party affiliation – note that they would find this result even if there’s no real change in ideology at all!

To be fair to Pew, there are other findings in their report that are worth discussing, such as the apparent rise in ideological consistency among many Americans, that at first glance seem consistent with the idea that Americans are increasingly polarized in terms of political values. As time permits, I’ll try to unpack some more of their results. But for now beware of sensationalized media reports suggesting that we are becoming an increasingly divided nation. That is the glass-is-half-empty perspective.  But the data, along with an understanding of party sorting, indicates that we should probably adopt a glass half-full perspective.  Most Americans are not divided into two ideologically hostile camps of unyielding partisans.  Instead we have much more in common politically than a superficial read of the Pew findings might suggest.  I will develop this point in posts to come.

Correction: an earlier version of this post said Pew’s first values survey took place three decades ago – the Pew data I cite here only goes back two decades.

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