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Asymmetrical Polarization Undermined? Thoughts on the New Pew Research Center’s Report on Political Polarization

U.S. Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) (L) walks with Representative Sean Duffy (R-WI) as they depart after an evening vote at the U.S. Capitol in Washington May 28, 2014.

The new Pew Research Center report on polarization is a gold mine of insights into how the sharp partisan polarization, so pronounced in Congress and among political elites, has penetrated the broader public. Pew researchers trace significant increases in ideological consistency and partisan animosity from 1994 to 2014, especially pronounced among those who regularly vote and engage in more demanding forms of political participation. Not surprisingly, among citizens more generally, they find much less ideological consistency and partisan affect.

Their findings are consistent with recent scholarship on the increasing ideological constraint among voters in both parties, the stronger alignment of partisanship and ideology, and the deeper cultural and geographical roots of the hyper-partisanship or tribalism in the electorate.

The authors of the Pew report find it more difficult to deal with the question of whether these important changes are comparable for the two parties. A brief section on “Is Polarization Asymmetrical” carefully navigates the treacherous waters often associated with this question.  They note the shift in ideological consolidation among Democrats between 1994 and 2014 is more pronounced than among Republicans, leaving today’s parties at roughly the same place. But they qualify that finding by also noting the sharper movement right among Republicans in the last decade and the fact that the increasing Democratic ideological consolidation is associated with a nationwide leftward shift in attitudes on same-sex relations and immigration.

Unfortunately, that subtlety was lost in a major rollout of the report by Pew Research Center President Alan Murray in the Wall Street Journal.  In an otherwise admirable summary of the report’s findings, Murray wrote: “The study also undermines the notion, popular in Washington, of “asymmetrical polarization” – which blames Republicans for causing the division.” I’m not sure why he thinks this notion is popular in Washington. When Norm Ornstein and I introduced asymmetric polarization in our Washington Post Outlook article and book two years ago, the silence among members of the press and Washington establishment was deafening. False equivalence—the insistence on balance between the parties whatever the reality—was and largely remains a way of life in the mainstream press.

In any case, our argument about the Republicans as a radical insurgency was largely based on behavior in Congress (among elites) and among activists. The evidence in support of that argument is even more compelling today.

But the asymmetric polarization has reached the voting public as well and is now a critically important component of our polarized politics and dysfunctional government. In fact, the Pew report itself presents nuggets that support it, particularly if one focuses on the politically engaged members of the public. Here are a few of the takeaways from the Pew report:

  • The growing gap between the two parties on the individual items making up their ideological consistency scale are mostly a consequence of Republicans taking more conservative positions.
  • Consistent conservatives have much more unfavorable views of the Democratic Party than consistent liberals have of the Republican Party. 
  • Republicans, especially those who are consistent conservatives, see the other party as a threat to the nation’s well-being more than do Democrats.
  • Republicans who view the other party very negatively are more likely to vote than Democrats. 
  • The ideological “silos” by place and friendship networks are much higher among conservatives than liberals.  The same is true for race and ethnicity as well as religious faith.
  • And importantly, as we have seen in other surveys, consistent conservatives like their elected officials to “stick to their positions” rather than “make compromises”; consistent liberals overwhelmingly prefer politicians who make compromises.

All components of the polarization story are evident in the electorate, including the striking asymmetry between the parties. The new Pew report provides the data to prove it, and it is incumbent upon political analysts to make sure that the claims surrounding this data reflect those realities.

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