Forms of polarization

We regularly hear that American politics is polarized.

Those doing the talking mean very different things by the term.

Some look at any 50/50 division as “polarized,” though such a definition does not comport particularly well with the history of the term.

For others, polarization refers to deep differences. That is, the spread of increasingly extreme views.

The Pew Research Center adopted an idiosyncratic definition that sees polarization as increasing ideological consistency.

Finally, some focus on the hostility of partisans toward each other.

I believe these last three are intimately related and that relationship explains something about our politics.

The country is deeply divided over some issues, but clusters toward the middle on most.

Take, for example, a question long asked by the American National Election Study about whether “the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living…or… the government should just let each person get ahead on their own…”

In 2012, 16 percent took a strong position in favor of government responsibility, while 28 percent strongly advocated self-reliance. But the largest number—49 percent—put themselves somewhere in the middle.

And as for increasing extremism: when the question was first posed in 1972, 19 percent were on the left, 27 percent on the right and 42 percent in the middle. No flight to the extremes here.

While there are exceptions, in the main, attitudes have not become more extreme in recent years. We are not deeply divided over too many issues.

But there is an increasingly clear pattern to the divisions. Democrats on one side, Republicans on the other. While there were once conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, both those species have become largely extinct.

So, differences are not deep, but they are consistent.

Pew’s been measuring ideological consistency since 1994. Their first look found 21 percent with mostly liberal positions on their questions and 30 percent with mostly conservative views. Forty-nine percent were decidedly mixed.

By 2015, mostly consistent liberals comprised 35 percent, consistent conservatives 27 percent. Just 38 percent presented a meaningful mix of views.

That sorting process was even clearer in Congress.

When I first came to Washington the fundamental lesson being taught was, “there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies. The person with you today will be against you tomorrow and the person against you on this vote will be with you on the next one.”

The reality that exhortation reflected began disappearing by the mid-1990’s and no longer exists in any meaningful way.

As members, and voters, look across the divide, on vote after vote, and issue after issue, they see the same people standing shoulder to shoulder with them and the same individuals arrayed against them.

That digs the trench between the parties deeper and deeper.

Moreover, liberals and conservatives actually think differently and honor different priorities.

Liberals embrace change. Conservatives value tradition.

Liberals celebrate diversity. Conservatives much prefer national unity.

Liberals rely on expert opinion, conservatives on “common sense.”

These, and a host of other differences in the thought processes of liberals and conservatives have been documented. Now that the parties have been ideologically sorted, they represent two different approaches to the world, deepening the divide between them.

The result: extraordinary levels of animosity.

As recently as 1994, just about 17 percent of partisans had a very unfavorable view of the other party. By 2017, that jumped to 45 percent.

In 1958, about a quarter of strong Republicans and a third of strong Democrats said they would be upset if they had a daughter who married someone of the other party. By 2016, that number was over 60 percent in both parties.

We haven’t really become more extreme. But as the parties have become more ideologically consistent, and we lost the cross-cutting cleavages on which political scientists lavished so much affection, we have become more hostile to each other.

That may be the worst part of polarization.

Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 Governors and dozens of House Members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years and as President of the American Association of Political Consultants.

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