Sorry, But We Are Still Not Polarized

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Stanford political science Professor Morris Fiorina, on whose research I relied heavily in writing my Politico piece analyzing the widely publicized results of the recent Pew survey on polarization  has written his own take on the subject in this Monkey Cage blog post.

In contrast to much of the pundits’ read of the Pew results (but consistent with my read of its survey data), Fiorina does not believe the general public is becoming more polarized. He writes, “In sum, we can argue about the size of the political center in the United States since the answer depends on various ways of measuring it, but whichever measure one chooses, the conclusion is the same: the country as a whole is no more polarized than it was a generation ago.” Instead, he argues that what Pew shows is a process of party sorting in which partisanship, ideology and issue positions “go together in a way they did not in the mid-20th century. Issues and ideology used to cross-cut the partisan distribution, now they reinforce it.” The result is that parties are much more ideologically homogeneous than they were half a century ago. This is something I also discussed in the Politico piece, and therefore I won’t elaborate here, but it is this process that those who claim to see evidence of polarization are often describing.

But Fiorina makes two additional and very important observations regarding how some of the media commentary indicates a misreading of the Pew Report. The first is that many pundits have misconstrued the growth in ideological consistency among a portion of the public as evidence of increased ideological polarization. But they are not the same. As I noted in the Politico piece, Pew has utilized the same set of 10 questions, with a dichotomous response option (e.g., “homosexuality should be accepted by society” or “homosexuality should be discouraged by society”), to create their liberal-conservative index. The most recent survey results show a doubling, to 21%, in the number of respondents expressing either consistently liberal or conservative opinions across these 10 questions.

As Fiorina points out, however, this doesn’t mean Americans’ views have become more extreme on these issues – indeed, we can’t know that based on this set of questions and available responses.  Moreover, we do know from other survey data that many Americans’ views on key issues aren’t easily captured by a simple dichotomous response set. So, rather than an increase in polarization, what Pew has found in terms of these 10 questions is an increase in the ideological consistency of some respondents’ anwers. By the same token – and the Pew authors make this clear – this does not mean the roughly 80% who express a combination of liberal and conservative views based on these 10 questions are all moderates. Instead, they may hold very extreme, but ideologically inconsistent, views on a number of issues. (As I noted in my Politico piece, the evidence that Americans are largely moderate comes from other survey data, such as the ANES surveys.)

In defense of pundits who misinterpreted this portion of the Pew Report, the robust publicity (and still continuing!) rollout pushed by Pew , as well as some of the Report’s language seemed to suggest their results indicate a more divided United States. But the Pew data does not show that American is becoming increasingly polarized – only that it is better sorted along party lines and that there has been an increase in ideological consistency.

Fiorina also addresses a second result in the Pew survey that has become a matter of some debate: whether political “polarization” is asymmetrical – that is, whether the “growing” extremism – read, partisan sorting – is situated largely within one side of the ideological spectrum (Republican or Democrat). In keeping with Jack Goodman’s admonition to keep these posts short, however, I’ll deal with this issue in tomorrow’s post.

For now, however, the key point is this: despite claims to the contrary, the Pew study does not “offer overwhelming evidence of a sharp increase in polarization and in tribal political characterizations over the past two decades, but especially in the past few years.”  Instead, it provides further evidence of party sorting. And, contrary to what some have argued, the difference between sorting and polarization is not simply academic hairsplitting. Instead, the two describe completely different phenomena. Polarization refers to a process in which we see movement among Americans away from the moderate center toward the ideological extremes. Party sorting, in contrast, suggests a general stability in the distribution of Americans’ political views with, if other survey data is to be believed, most Americans remaining situated closer to the ideological middle. Deciding what is actually occurring is not simply a “nerd” fight among academic geeks. Instead, the answer has real world ramifications. For example, we might worry less about the increase in congressional polarization if we thought it simply mimicked the evolving views of a polarizing public. But, if Fiorina is right, the polarization in Congress is not a reflection of a growing ideologically divide within the general public. And that should be cause for concern.

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