A new Pew Research study has addressed the increasing political polarization in the American public and its effects on politics and everyday life. While the precise percentages may be big news, I think the general contours of what is reported have been increasingly evident for some time.
The largest political survey in the Pew Research Center's history, this study polled more than 10,000 people in the first three months of this year. Its most dramatic finding, I suppose, is that the portion of the population expressing consistently conservative or liberal opinions has actually doubled since 1994. It was 10% of the population in 1994, and is 21 % now. Moreover,ideology and party are now more closely aligned than in the past, with the result that ideological overlap between the political parties has been radically reduced. Thus, the "typical" Republican is now to the right of 94% of Democrats (as opposed to 70% in 1994), while the "typical" Democrat is now more liberal than 92% of Republicans (as opposed to 64% just 20 years ago). A corollary is that only 39% of Americans currently have an approximately equal number of conservative and liberal positions, down from 49% in 1994. The study notes that these centrists are not necessarily "moderate." They may have strong opinions - whether conservative or liberal - on particular issues, but are not ideologically consistent the way partisan Republicans and Democrats now are.
Even more ominously, partisan animosity has risen significantly over the past 20 years. The percentage of Republicans with very negative opinions of Democrats has grown from 17% to 43%, while Democrats with comparably negative opinions of Republicans have gone from 16% to 38%. Many now believe that the opposite party's policies "are so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being."
The report confirms what has been alleged anecdotally for some time now, that extreme partisans increasingly have close friends with similar views. Specifically 63% of ideological conservatives and 49% of ideological liberals say that most of their friends share their political views.The report refers to "ideological silos" - a truly evocative term. Apparently, we are witnessing the consequence - one of the consequences - of the breakdown of the old common culture represented, for example, by the evening news on the three networks and its replacement by niche-market cable channels and talk radio. Increasingly people can and do insulate themselves from ever having to hear anything they might disagree with!
It has often been alleged that conservatives tend to prefer to live in rural areas and liberals in urban areas. The report further confirms this. Some 75% of ideological conservatives would prefer to live where "the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away," while 77% of ideological liberals wold prefer smaller houses in closer communities.
Finally, while there are still more people in the political center, it is - unsurprisingly - the case that it is the more intensely ideological who participate more in politics (including political donations).
Is it any wonder we are in the state we are in this country?