America's Fracturing Electorate

Why America's politics are becoming more polarized—and what it means for the future.

The Pew Research Center, or PRC, is in the process of exploding one of the most persistent and misguided myths to overtake American political discourse in many a long year—the idea, bandied around with abandon of late, that Washington has somehow divorced itself from the American people in becoming polarized and dysfunctional. An extensive Pew survey now makes clear that the polarization emanates from the people themselves, and Washington’s dysfunction is merely a reflection of that political reality.

The Pew survey, based on a scientific sample of some 10,000 Americans on a wide array of political views and values, was described on Thursday in a Wall Street Journal article by Alan Murray, PRC president. As described by Murray, the survey results demonstrate not only that political polarization in America isn’t merely a growing reality of national political sentiment, but a product also of deepening political passions across the political spectrum—and not just from the right.

“The majority of Americans may not be getting the politics they want,” writes Murray. “But growing minorities have taken clear sides in the political battle, see high stakes in the outcome and are filled with passionate intensity.”

The Pew data, which rely on questions Pew has posed to Americans for two decades, indicate that the percentage of American voters who adhere consistently to liberal or conservative views has doubled since 1994, from 10 percent to 21 percent. More than twice as many Republicans and Democrats express a “very unfavorable” opinion of the other party as did so two decades ago. Further, a majority of these “strong partisans” believe the other side poses a “threat to the nation’s well being.”

Pew’s ten-question index used to assess ideological views demonstrated that liberal thinking has coalesced at least as much as conservative thinking. Democrats holding consistently liberal views have more than quadrupled in twenty years, from 5 percent to 23 percent. Republicans with similarly consistent conservative views have fluctuated in number over the same period—13 percent in 1994, 6 percent in 2004 and 20 percent this year.

As Murray writes, “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.” He notes they are more likely to vote, make campaign contributions, contact members of Congress or work in campaigns. And 38 percent of politically engaged Democrats now hold consistently liberal views, up from just 8 percent in 1994, while 33 percent of politically engaged Republicans are consistent conservatives, up from 23 percent in 1994 and just 10 percent in 2004.

Murray explains that the Pew surveys to date don’t address the causes for this “political fracturing of the American public.” He notes that speculation has focused on the rise in partisan media and negative political messaging, the coming together of like-minded people through social media, congressional gerrymandering and closed political primaries. But whatever the cause, the phenomenon is clear. The electorate, and not just Washington, has been fracturing—and the pressure is coming from both sides of the political spectrum.

This debunks a great deal of commentary of recent years, reflected perhaps most starkly in a 2012 book entitled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. The authors wrote, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The Mann-Ornstein thesis was based on two perceptions that have been exploded by the Pew study—that the problem was largely a Washington phenomenon and reflected a disconnect between the politics of Washington and the politics of the country; and that it was largely a product of one party that had gone berserk.

It is perhaps easier psychologically to view this polarization through the prism of villainy, as Mann and Ornstein do. But it doesn’t enhance one’s understanding of what’s going on in American politics.