Friday, June 13, 2014

Despite Headline, Pew Poll Does Not Show a Polarized America

In my first book with Steven Schier, American Government and Popular Discontent, I wrote extensively about the ongoing claims that the American public is deeply polarized. I disputed arguments offered by political scientists like Alan Abramowitz, author of The Disappearing Center, and found support for the claims of mass moderation overshadowed by elite polarization offered by Morris Fiorina in Disconnect.
I am currently writing a new book on the impact of ideology and polarization on American politics and have been picking through a new survey from Pew. According to Pew the study finds "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. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life."
But, despite the headlines, the study doesn't really show that America is polarized. Rather it shows that a decidedly small group of ideological activists on the left and right are incredibly polarized and have each laid claim to one of the two major parties.
Here are some quick reactions which I think undermine the premise of polarization. In reality, the Pew poll confirms that WE ARE NOT a deeply polarized nation coming apart at the seams. Rather a small group of committed ideologues are working hard to pull us apart.

1.) True ideologues have increased by 11 percentage points in 20 years from 10% in 1994 to their present level of 21% - that’s hardly earth shattering. The scary headline being that they've doubled in size but the calm down and breath take away is that they are but 1/5 of the electorate.

Growing Minority Holds Consistent Ideological Views

2). And it is among the most ideological voters that Pew finds people unhappy with family members marrying outside of the party and having few friends in the other party.
But among most of the rest (the majority), we don’t care who our family members marry, we don’t care about our friends’ partisanship, and we like compromise.

Guess Who’s Coming? Ideological Differences in Views of  Family Member Marrying Different Race, Gun Owner
3) It’s among the most ideological that compromise is dismissed as selling out. The rest of us like compromise.

Compromise in the Eye of the Beholder

4) On the issue of geographic polarization or Red State v Blue State, the study found that liberals like communities where everything is close together while conservative live wide open spaces - that puts a new spin on the big sort. Dear God! We're coming apart at the seams! 
So, are we moving so we can be around like minded people or is it really that liberals and conservatives like different physical environments?
5) Do we want to live near people with similar views? With the exception of the small subset of "True Conservatives," the vast majority of everyone else doesn't care.
Ideological “Silos”

6) With regard to the amenities provided by a community, liberals and conservatives largely agreed that they want to live near family, with good schools, and access to the great outdoors.
Where do they differ? Liberals care more about having access to museums... Can we as a nation ever get past this divide?
Liberals, Conservatives Agree on Importance of Living Near Family, Good Schools and the Outdoors
7) The study does confirm that the most ideological are the most likely to vote and the most like to contribute money - so a minority of ideologues dominates American politics.
Voting, Donations Linked to Negative Views of the Other Party
8) Those in the middle outnumber those on the wings. But they do not participate and do not make use of their numerical advantage. American politics is polarized not because the people are polarized, but because the vast and vital center has ceded all control to the small and malignant wings.