Pew Research Center released a big report on political polarization today, and the prognosis is about what you'd expect. American voters on either side of the ideological divide are drifting away from each other. The more they drift, the more they hate the party they're leaving behind.
Seventy-nine percent of Democrats have unfavorable attitudes about the Republican Party. Eighty-two percent of Republicans have unfavorable attitudes about the Democratic Party. The number of partisans with intensely unfavorable opinions has more than doubled.
Absolutist rejection is quite common — Roughly one third of partisans believe the opposition is “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” People who describe the opposition as a threat to the nation are also more likely to make campaign donations, pay attention to political news and vote in primaries. This isn't surprising. In recent years, the most passionate partisans have been found on the edges of the right and the left. Given their investment in ideology, of course they are equally invested in making sure their party's candidates look like them.
And the more politically involved you are, the more contempt you feel for those who disagree with you.
In 1994 -- the same year the Contract with America was born -- less than 30 percent of consistent partisans saw the opposite part in a very unfavorable light. Angry voters haven't always chosen our elected officials, but they do now.
Success in primaries is increasingly linked to promising you'll fight the opposition -- not offering policy prescriptions of your own. That's why Obamacare is omnipresent in tea party campaign advertisements, and why liberal organizations are railing against the Koch brothers and Keystone.
These angry forces were at work in Rep. Eric Cantor's loss in Tuesday's Virginia primary. Cantor outraised his conservative challenger significantly, but only 2 percent of his donations came from small individual donors. Only 12 percent of his haul came from inside his congressional district. Thirty-three percent of Brat's fundraising came from small donations. Cantor's support outside the district may have loomed large, but in Richmond -- one of the most conservative districts in Virginia, especially after recent redistricting -- it was growing thin.
Conservatives in the district worried Cantor was drifting toward the opposition and away from them -- and remember, primary voters are more likely to think those who don't share their views are endangering the republic. Jamie Radtke, co-founder of the Virginia Tea Party Federation, told the Washington Post yesterday that Cantor had "made an enemy of his friends.”
A Daily Caller article from last week featured the headline, "Cantor Wants Youth Amnesty Deal With Obama." The article quoted the House majority leader saying, “I have told the president, there are some things we can work on together." It's the type of statement that would seem beneficial to a candidate during a time when dissatisfaction with the government's inability to do anything ranks as one of the most important problem's facing the nation -- except to the people who were going to decide whether Cantor won his primary.
As one activist wrote on the Henrico County Tea Party's Web site, "As a former supporter of Eric Cantor, I believe he initially did a good job representing the interests of the district and promoting conservative policies and legislation. However, I have come to believe that, over time, he has lost his way and more and more, has abandoned integrity and the conservative principles of the Republican Party in pursuit of his own political interests."
Although primary voters are more partisan and distrustful of the opposition, the same is not true of the general electorate.
Consistently liberal and consistently conservative voters choose candidates who look like them, and by the time the American public at large starts paying attention, there's no one left in the race who looks like them. So, they're left to either vote for someone on their left or their right, or they tune out and hand the reins to their angrier and more partisan compatriots. Until more people start voting in primaries, the people America elects are going to continue growing more partisan and more unwilling to work with the opposition.
Many of the partisans are likely unaware that they are in the minority. Sixty-three percent of consistent conservatives say that most of their friends share their political views. Forty-nine percent of consistent liberals say the same. Consistent partisans are also more likely to say that living in a place where most people share their political beliefs is important than those of more mixed ideological views. Consistent partisans are consuming media that reinforces their worldview. When your world is largely composed of things you agree with, it becomes less surprising that the opposition seems more foreign and threatening.
Conservative media stars -- Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck and Mark Levin primarily -- have been telling their listeners and viewers about David Brat for months. These consumers -- who dovetail neatly with Republican primary voters --could have reacted to a Cantor victory with the same shocked reaction that greeted his downfall. When everything they saw pointed toward overwhelming support for Brat, why should they think any different?
The Pew Research Center poll was conducted Jan. 23-March 16 among a random national sample of 10,013 adults on land-line and cellular phones with live interviewers. The margin of error for overall results ranges between 1.1 to 2 percentage points; the error margin ranges from 2.9 to 6.1 percentage points for political subgroups such as “Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents” or “consistent conservatives.” Full methodology and question wording available at pewresearch.org.