Political News

RIP, the political middle

Posted October 5

— A new Pew poll on polarization in our politics has some very bad news for people who believe in a sensible center in politics: It doesn't exist.

What Pew documents in this massive and important study is that Republicans and Democrats have never been further away from each other in terms of their ideological approach to the world. And there's very little evidence in the data that suggests the separation between the two parties will grow narrower any time soon.

As recently as 1994, more than one-third of Republicans were identified as more liberal than the average Democrat. That number is 5% today. Ditto Democrats, where 30% were more conservative than the average Republican in 1994 while just 3% are today.

You can see the parting of ways when you dig into the 10 value questions on which Pew bases these broader numbers. Consider:

* 65% of Republicans agree with the idea that "poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return." Just 18% of Democrats say the same.

* 75% of Republicans say "blacks who can't get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition," while 28% of Democrats agree with that sentiment.

* 53% of Republicans think "the best way to ensure peace is through military strength," while only 13% of Democrats think the same.

In those 10 value questions -- which Pew has been asking since 1994 -- the average gap between Democrats and Republicans is now 36 percentage points. It was just 15 percentage points in 1994.

Democrats are now more consistently liberal. Republicans are now more consistently conservative. And that puts them further away from one another than ever before.

There are lots of reasons to explain this increased polarization in the country. Self-sorting means we tend to live around people who agree with us all the time. The fracturing of the mainstream media has allowed people to only consume news and information that comports with their pre-existing beliefs.

There's also been a rise in tribalism -- using the party you belong to to define not only how you see yourself but also how you see every issue -- in the last decade-plus.

Writes Alexander George Theodoridis, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Merced:

"Partisanship for many Americans today takes the form of a visceral, even subconscious, attachment to a party group. Our party becomes a part of our self-concept in deep and meaningful ways. This linkage of party and 'self' changes the way we judge the parties and incorporate and receive new information. I and others have measured profound, nearly blinding, application of motivated reasoning on the part of voters when evaluating the actions of politicians and partisans from the two sides."

In simpler terms: We see and hear what we want to see and hear.

We also vote for politicians who fit our increasingly ideological world view. And expect them to represent that view in Congress. And then get annoyed when nothing gets done.

Which, as you may have figured out, makes no sense. You can't elect people who tout their ideological rigidity and also be bothered when they show no willingness to work with the other side. (Worth noting: While polarization in Congress does mirror the polarization of the country, Republicans in Congress have grown more conservative than Democrats have become more liberal.)

What these Pew numbers make clear is that while lots and lots of Americans insist they are tired of the partisanship and lack of accomplishments in Washington, they really aren't.

They are sick of others not agreeing with them.

People like the idea of Congress working together for solutions. But they want the solutions to be their solutions, not the other guy's. They want to make compromises if the compromise comports with all of their beliefs. Which, of course, isn't compromise.

The problem with our politics isn't the people we elect to Congress. It's us.

Comments

Please with your WRAL.com account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all