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.”