New evidence for our nasty politics

June 12

(Martha Soukup/Creative Commons)

A new Pew Center report on political polarization is out.  It is based on a large new poll of Americans and features a lot of fascinating findings.  Here are some that I think deserve mention, along with a little context and reaction.

1) Ideological consistency has increased, but most Americans are not ideologically consistent.

Here’s a key passage from the report:

The share of Americans who express consistently conservative, or consistently liberal, opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. And ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past.

This growing alignment of ideology and partisanship is well-documented in the political science literature (see here or here) but nicely illustrated and updated in the Pew report.  This increase in “ideological consistency,” as Pew calls it, is real.

But we should not lose sight of the other 79 percent of Americans who express lower levels of consistency.  Indeed, given that most Americans are not political junkies, it would be surprising if they had taken the time to form opinions about lots of political issues and, moreover, to make those opinions ideologically consistent with each other.  Ideological orthodoxy and interest in politics go hand in hand.  Which leads us to…

2) People who care about politics are the most ideological and partisan.

Here is the graph from Pew:


People who are consistently liberal or conservative are much more likely to vote or donate. This may not be surprising.  But it speaks to a real tension that is often unacknowledged.  On the one hand, many bemoan the fact that so many Americans don’t know facts about politics or don’t vote in elections.  On the other hand, many bemoan partisanship and ideology and yearn for moderation and compromise.  Well, to put it bluntly, we don’t get to have a politically engaged public and a moderate one.

3) Partisan animosity is on the rise.

Here is the graph from Pew:


The key here is not that people have become more attached to their own party.  It’s that they’ve become more hostile to the other party.  So polarization in American politics shouldn’t be understood as purely about ideology or issues — although that is certainly a component.  It’s also about how people feel about the parties as groups.  Partisan politics is increasingly like sports: you not only root for your team, but you really dislike the other.  (Think Redskins vs. Cowboys or North Carolina vs. Duke.)

Of course, ideology and partisan animosity go hand in hand.  As the Pew report documents, most ideologically consistent people have an unfavorable view of the opposite party.  For more on the increase in partisan animosity, see this article and the discussion of it by Danny Hayes.

4) Liberals and conservatives have different tastes.  (But maybe don’t make too much of that.)

The Pew report documents that liberals and conservatives tend to prefer different kinds of communities. Liberals prefer walkable communities more than conservatives do, for example.  And many ideologically consistent liberals and conservatives also report a preference for friends who share their political views — what the Pew report refers to as “ideological silos.”

But a cautionary note is in order.  It is certainly true that our family and friends tend to be similar to us politically.  (The most politically diverse place for most of us? Probably the workplace.)  And it may be true that liberals and conservatives say that they prefer different kinds of communities.  But it’s worth remembering that there is very mixed evidence that people actually do choose to live in like-minded communities.  And the “ideological silos” of our close family and friends may not extend very far.  Relatively few people seek out only ideologically congenial media outlets, for example.

One other tension that deserves mention: having a more politically diverse network of family and friends is associated with more tolerance of opposing points of view.  (Great!)  But diverse networks are actually associated with less involvement in politics. (Not so great!)   See this book by political scientist Diana Mutz.  Once again, ideological consistency goes hand in hand with political participation.

5) Want someone to blame?  Blame politicians.

The Pew report doesn’t get into the origins of these trends.  But I think the prevailing view in political science — for example, in Matt Levendusky’s The Partisan Sort” or this article by Marc Hetheringtonis this: political leaders polarized first, and the public has followed.  This makes sense: most of us don’t do a lot of original research and thinking about politics.  Instead, we out-source that work to political leaders and others who figure out what ideology means — what it is to be a liberal or conservative — and then transmit that message to the public.  And thus, it makes sense that it’s politically interested Americans who are the most polarized, since they’re the ones paying enough attention to get the message.

For more on this subject, see our extensive series on political polarization.

[Disclosure:  Joshua Tucker and I discussed this topic with the Pew Center as they were beginning to plan the survey, and are thanked in the report.  We had no input into the report, however.]

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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