Is the US Becoming More Extreme? Or are We Just Sorting Ourselves Better?

Written by: Corey Washington

Primary Source: Zero Ideology

A few weeks ago, Brooke Gladstone of On the Media did an excellent interview with Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina about the Pew Study on Polarization that came out in June. (I quoted some results from the study in a previous post.) Alan Murry, President of Pew claimed in an article in the WSJ that it shows that polarization is not just a “Washington phenomenon”, but that Americans as a whole are becoming more polarized and extreme in their views.

The study should put to rest any notion that polarization is solely a Washington phenomenon. Our research, which relies on a set of questions we’ve been asking for two decades, finds that the percentage of American voters who adhere consistently to liberal or conservative views has doubled since 1994, to 21% from 10%.

The study also undermines the notion, popular in Washington, of “asymmetrical polarization”—which blames Republicans for causing the division. Using a 10-question index of ideological views, our research shows that liberal thinking has coalesced at least as much as conservative thinking over the past two decades. Broad shifts in opinion on homosexuality and immigration, which used to divide the Democratic base, have helped cause the share of Democrats who hold consistently liberal views to more than quadruple, to 23% from 5%. The share of Republicans with consistently conservative views has increased less dramatically over the same time period, falling from 13% in 1994 to 6% in 2004, before spiking to 20% this year.

Those in the ideological wings remain a minority. But they are a growing minority, and more than in recent history they are driving American politics. They are much more likely to vote, make campaign contributions, contact members of Congress or work on campaigns.

Fiorina argues that this is a misreading of the study’s results. What the data show, he claims, is that Americans are simply sorting themselves more consistently, according to ideology, into the two parties. Here are a selection of Fiorina’s comments.

Polarization in common parlance means people moving toward extremes. That is not really what is happening and not what the Pew report shows. What it reflects really is the sorting out of the two political parties in the United States.  The people are becoming more consistent in their views. At one point, for example, the Democratic party had both the most serious opposition to civil rights and the greatest support for civil rights. This held for other policies as well. Now Republicans have gotten rid of their liberal wing, the Democrats have gotten rid of their conservative wing.

Today, the simple fact is that party and ideology are lined up much better. They used to cross-cut much more than they do now. Certainly, there is more partisan conflict, and certainly there is a greater difference between the parties. But the people who are not closely aligned with either party, the independents, the moderates, the “inconsistents”, they are still just as large a group. What was missed by the Pew report is that the “inconsistents” are still the largest part of the population.

The data show increases in consistency [on the questions asked] not on extremity.

What we have now are two ideological parties, and even when they don’t really disagree on substance, they simply fight each other to try to get issues for the next election….I think it has extremely negative influences on our politics.

But I recommend listening to the full interview (here). Its worth the 8 minutes.

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