Liberals, a larger force for polarization? Hey, survey says.

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 6:28 PM

Let’s dig a little deeper into a recent Pew report and examine the whys and wherefores.

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Everybody seems to have noticed that the Republican Party has become sharply more conservative in our era, propelled by uncompromising factions that are ever more intolerant of moderate dissent within GOP ranks.

Liberals decry this perceived radicalization on the right, and blame it almost entirely for America’s debilitating political gridlock. Pragmatic conservatives fret about the GOP’s rightward lurch, too, if only for fear that a too-rigid party will have trouble winning elections. A much-discussed “civil war” between “establishment” and “Tea Party” conservatives is underway in GOP nomination battles around the country this year.

Meanwhile, zealous movement conservatives themselves freely and proudly admit to insisting that the GOP must stand for something ­— their “thing” — if it expects their support.

Amid all this groupthink about Republican groupthink, it is a bit startling, even refreshing, to encounter the findings of new research on political polarization from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which has launched a new round of its extensive and fascinating survey studies into the ways (and woes) of American political life.

In a June installment, Pew reported that while “ideological consolidation nationwide has happened on both the left and the right of the political spectrum … the long-term shift among Democrats stands out as particularly noteworthy.” One is tempted to conclude, the report’s authors suggest, that “the liberals are driving political polarization.”

Pew researchers compared large-scale survey responses over time on controversies about economics, government’s role, foreign policy and social issues. They report that “the share of Democrats who are liberal on all or most [issues] has nearly doubled from just 30% in 1994 to 56% today. The share who are consistently liberal has quadrupled, from just 5% to 23% over the past 20 years.”

Among Republicans, “the ideological shift … has been more modest,” the report says. “[I]n 1994, 45% of Republicans were right-of-center, with 13% consistently conservative. Those figures are up to 53% and 20% today.”

Clearly, part of the story here is simply that Republicans were more unified than Democrats a generation ago. Since then, both parties have purged dissent, with Democrats catching up and now slightly outpacing the GOP in that purification process. Both parties are today less diverse than ever before in modern times.

But another twist complicates the tale. Republicans, unlike Democrats, have been on a whiplash-inducing journey over the past 20 years, racing in different ideological directions at different times, according to Pew’s data.

Between 1994 (the height of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” revolution) and 2004 (following George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” push), Republican purity plummeted, with the ranks of consistent conservatives falling by more than half, to just 6 percent of all Republicans a decade ago. Conservative orthodoxy has swiftly hardened again in the past 10 years.

By contrast, Democrats’ leftward movement since 1994 has been more gradual but never interrupted.

On reflection, this picture of affairs makes perfect sense. That it is mainly Republicans, not Democrats, who are battling among themselves today suggests that the GOP’s dogma is the less stable and settled one.

The Pew analysts also point out that much of the movement in both parties has occurred on social issues concerning which the whole society has been becoming more liberal.

A generation ago, issues such as gay rights and immigration mainly divided liberal from moderate Democrats. Today, those issues mostly estrange conservative from centrist Republicans.

As to why commentators seem more acutely aware of the recent rightward turn in the GOP than of the longer and larger leftward march of the Democrats, several causes suggest themselves.

First, an ample supply of liberals in the media might be especially inclined to notice growing stubbornness among conservatives. There is also history. Traditionally, Republicans long enjoyed a staid and steady Wall Street-meets-Main Street consensus. Democrats’ old-time Solid South-meets-Ellis Island coalition made for the more diverse and unruly herd of cats. Such stereotypes die hard.

And there is also this: Pew researchers find that conservatives know themselves somewhat better than liberals do. Among respondents Pew identifies as “mostly conservative,” 61 percent identify themselves as conservative. Only about half as many “mostly liberal” respondents (32 percent) recognize themselves as liberal.

The Pew polarization research is a mother lode of insights into America’s shifting political structure. But be warned — much of it is sobering, like the strong evidence of not just more disagreement between partisans but more bitter animosity, too. Yet it points clearly enough to a possible remedy.

For all the left-right divergence, lockstep ideologues remain a small minority in each party. If Americans with less rigid outlooks want the parties to be more open and compromising, they have the strength of numbers to make it so.

But it’s not just on the right that more moderates need to make themselves heard.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.

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