AMERICAN VALUES: FRACTURED PARTIES
Belief Spectrum Brings Party Splits
By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Sheila Kester, 50, is a parts control clerk in Clearwater, Kan. She wants a bigger federal government with more services for the poor and disadvantaged. "We have people who are hungry. We have people who are needing a job and need a skill to get a job," Kester says. She favors abortion rights. Religion has no place in politics: "Church and state do not need to get into the same bed together."
In fact, these voters are more typical than they might seem adhering to values at odds with those espoused by their party's leaders. Differences over such core values as individual responsibility and personal morality, the size and scope of government, and the proper role of religion in public life shape the political dialogue and divide parties in unexpected ways, according to a national survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.
Of course, Americans have always cared about values, and politicians have always talked about them. But as party loyalty wanes, the core values people hold become even more central to politics.
Increasingly, politicians must speak in the language of values to win votes. And on hot-button issues from affirmative action to abortion to welfare and health care reform, values now shape voters' policy preferences more directly than party identification, the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey found.
The new politics of values demands a new way of looking at the major political parties: Not as two monolithic armies united by common beliefs and goals, but amalgams of smaller, more loosely affiliated groups.
Using a statistical technique called cluster analysis, Post/Kaiser/Harvard researchers grouped together individuals who held similar core values to illuminate the competing and contrasting factions within the Democratic and Republican parties.
Overall, the analysis found that four distinct clusters of voters make up more than 90 percent of the Republican Party. The factions include groups of Republicans who hold distinctly un-Republican values: They disproportionately favor a larger government, support government regulation of business, are morally flexible and want to keep religion out of politics.
Democrats are even more fractured: Five separate groups struggle to coexist within the party, including large factions that embrace rigidly punitive moral beliefs, firmly reject abortion and gay rights, and seek to reduce the size and scope of the federal government while increasing the influence of religion in politics. More than nine out of 10 Democrats fit into one of the five Democratic factions.
The differences that divide the parties internally have consequences for the country and its politics. They help to explain why so few Americans identify strongly with either party and why party leaders often find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for their presidential candidates or their national agendas, even within their own party.
These internal fractures also produce party primary elections that are more bitterly contested than the fall general election campaigns and suggest why it's so difficult for either party to govern.
To compare and contrast the values held by Democrats and Republicans, the Post/Kaiser/Harvard research team first identified the beliefs and values critical in shaping political attitudes, based on past research as well as interviews with political scientists, sociologists and other authorities on political culture and beliefs.
In a national survey, a total of 2,025 randomly selected Americans were asked questions that measured how they stood on these core beliefs. They also were asked whether they considered themselves to be Democrats, Republicans or political independents not inclined toward either party.
It might strike some as too glib to call these coalitions parties within the two parties. These groups lack real leadership and are too disorganized and remote to be considered powerful, singular forces in American life.
Then again, perhaps the same might be said of the Republican and Democratic parties.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company