Polarized People says Pew – not so says Pew data

The Pew Research Center published a study in mid-2012 that claimed increased polarization among the American public along political party lines. This summary claim, reported widely in the press, is true only based on a flexible definition of WHO counts as polarized, and the underlying data seem much less certain. Consider the summary paragraph alone:

Americans’ values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years. Party has now become the single largest fissure in American society, with the values gap between Republicans and Democrats greater than gender, age, race or class divides. The parties also have become smaller and more ideologically homogeneous over this period. 

So the study found a growing gap between citizens who identified with a party BUT a smaller percentage of the public actually doing just that — identifying with a party. Because party-identification is voluntary (unlike gender, age, race), then declaring a growing ideological gap among shrinking self-declared ideological groups is circular logic. So, let’s set aside the headline and appreciate that the Pew study contains a treasure trove of insights.

1. A growing number of Americans are non-partisan. The share of independents has grown from 29% in 1990 to 38% in 2012. Democrat affiliation is steady (33 to 32), while Republican has dropped from 31 to 24. Interestingly, the shift is entirely driven by males — 4% left the GOP, 6% left the Dems, which is 2-3 times more than females which shifted a few percentage points out of each party.

2. Americans of all ideologies distrust centralized government. Limiting federal powers in line with the 10th amendment – long since abandoned in practice – was supported by 75% of the people in 1987 and still by 69% today. Independents views are unchanged, Republican attitudes have hardened slightly (to 84%), but Democratic attitudes have collapsed by 17 points, though still a majority of 54% distrust centralization.

3. All Americans support compromise. Contrary to the headlines, the percentage of Republican voters – even the shrinking, more ideological cohort – that support compromise remains unchanged from 1987 to 2012, nearly 70 percent. Democrat support for compromise has risen from 77 to 90 percent. Eight in ten Americans agree with this statement “I like political leaders who are willing to make compromises in order to get the job done.”

5 responses to “Polarized People says Pew – not so says Pew data

  1. Regarding point 3. “All Americans support compromise.” It is a good idea to remember that when bridging a river, the width of the span can be compromised but the length is non-negotiable. Entirely too many fiscal compromises of the past 30 years have consisted of liberals trading away nonessential items in return for conservatives surrendering critical components and then taking the blame when the compromise left the nation in deep water. We need to do a much better job of getting Members of Congress to recognize which economic points contribute to the width of various proposals and which are critical to the length.

  2. Actually, the Pew poll is correct: the two parties are simultaneously shrinking and also becoming “more ideologically homogeneous.” The poll has not used circular logic to explain the actual long-term trend of steadily increasing ideological ‘purity’ in both major parties ever since the elimination of Progressive Era bipartisanship standards in 1956.

    The cross-over in ideological purity replacing bipartisanship in American politics finally occurred in 1973, and statistically the trend toward increased extremism shows no sign of abating. According to the research by Dr. Halseth at UDenver, the extremism in both parties steadily grows over the past forty years (2012-1973) as their voting recor shrinkingds steadily grow more partisan.

    The Pew poll measures what is actually happening: the two major parties are slowly shrinking, and as they shrink they become increasingly partisan. But their increasing partisan extremism is not because they are shrinking, or because the nonpartisans are growing. Rather, the two parties re-invented their reward for incumbency in 1956 so that partisanship is rewarded and bipartisanship is punished. An argument could be made that the rise of the nonpartisan independent to becoming the nation’s largest political grouping represents the center-Left and center-Right voters abandoning the increasing ideological rigidity and purity of both major parties.

  3. Actually, the Pew Poll is not engaging in circular logic. It is measuring accurately two separate but related phenomenon: the shrinking of the two major political parties in recent years (a total of 3 million D’s and R’s abandoned the two parties in the past three years), and the “more ideologically homogenous” (the polarization from increasing partisan purity) make-up in both parties. The Pew Poll states the latter measure of polarization is now at its worst in the past 25 years.

    The Pew Poll is accurate, but it would be even more accurate to report that the national polarization is now at its worst level in the past 40 years. Ever since both parties decided in 1953 to reward incumbency for partisanship instead of the Progressive Era’s (1926-1956) reward of incumbency for bipartisanship, the nation’s partisanship has steadily increased and the bipartisanship has steadily declined (as measured by actual voting by elected politicians). The two methods of rewarding incumbency finally crossed in 1973, so now both major parties have increasingly been rewarding ideological rigidity and extremism for four straight decades.

    An argument could be made that it is the center-Left (Blue Dogs) and center-Right (RINO’s) which are abandoning the two mjaor parties, and they are jumping out of two sinking ships because they feel so despised within their more ideologically-pure major party. Another argument could be made that the ‘center’ abandoning both major parties will result in either more falling voter participation, or in the rise of America’s first genuinely centrist political party. If the ‘center’ does coalesce in its own party, then by Nash’s theory of duopoly one or both of the two major parties will implode.

    Currently, the nonpartisan ‘Independent’ voter so despised and ridiculed by Democrats and Republican ideologues already comprise the largest political grouping in the nation’s politics…and they still have no party of their own. The Pew Poll syays nothing about the politics; they merely report the data. But the data and the 2012 voters’ choice between the Democratic Party’s extremist ideology of ‘democratic socialism’ and the Republican Party’s extremist ideology of ‘religious nationalism’ suggests that it will not matter which ideology is elected in November. The trends suggest that both major parties are already past their high-water mark, and are headed for collapse. Their deliberate diminishment of bipartisanship and reward for partisanship will become self-destructive.

  4. I think the mistake the symptom for the cause. Political polarization has occurred, but only in politics. It is the result of ‘improved’ gerrymandering, which allows more congressional seats (federal and state) to become safe for a party, resulting in the only real contest occuring during the primaries. The way to win a primary is to campaign towards the extremes and demonize the opposing party. The result is fewer reasons for political compromise, and less of a voice for those in the middle.

  5. Pingback: ObamaCare vs RomneyCare, and Other Links | Healthcare

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