Growing partisanship or consistency?

In case you missed it, Pew Research made a big splash a few weeks ago when it released the results and analysis of a major new poll on political polarization in America. Pew summarized the findings this way:boxing politics

The overall 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. As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.

Partisan animosity has increased substantially over the same period. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”

The Pew finding that seems to have drawn the most attention was the fact that more Americans inside the respective political parties actually view the other party as a “threat to the nation.” To be sure, there are changing demographics happening inside the two major political parties that are interesting, but that alone is not enough to conclude that something new and negative is happening inside the American mindset overall. Based on our ongoing research partnership with Topos, we’ve been documenting for more than 10 years that Americans are not so divided that they cannot come together to form common public goals through civil dialogue.

The Monkey Cage blog of the Washington Post published this thoughtful critique of the sweeping conclusions many have made about the Pew findings. Stanford political science professor Morris Fiorina offers this summary:

In sum, we can argue about the size of the political center in the United States since the answer depends on various ways of measuring it, but whichever measure one chooses, the conclusion is the same: the country as a whole is no more polarized than it was a generation ago.

What has happened in the United States is not polarization, but sorting. Prior to the 1980s the Republican Party had a significant liberal wing and the Democrats a significant conservative wing.

The new data does suggest that the legislative gridlock of Congress and many state legislatures is not likely to subside in the near term. But the new polling results suggest an emerging opportunity and a call to action to find ways to involve Americans, outside of the party structure, in the decision-making and work of government. We at Public Works know and work with many leaders and organizations doing that very thing.

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