Setting the Record Straight on a Polarizing Debate

A Pew study shines a spotlight on how sharply parties have diverged, and it’s crucial the public knows how this impacts their government.

Alan Murray
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
See more stories about...
Norm Ornstein
June 18, 2014, 5:47 p.m.

For the past few years, sim­mer­ing de­bates have taken place among schol­ars, journ­al­ists, and pun­dits over the mean­ing of po­lar­iz­a­tion in Amer­ic­an polit­ics.

One of those de­bates has been about the level of po­lar­iz­a­tion in the broad­er pub­lic. Schol­ars such as Mo Fior­ina of Stan­ford have main­tained that the pub­lic is not really po­lar­ized, and that any changes are a nat­ur­al sort­ing pro­cess. Oth­ers, such as Alan Ab­ramow­itz of Emory, muster data to show that the cit­izenry has be­come more po­lar­ized.

The second de­bate has been about the nature of po­lar­iz­a­tion among elites, es­pe­cially in Wash­ing­ton. Tom Mann and I, among oth­ers, have said that the po­lar­iz­a­tion in the cap­it­al is asym­met­ric, much more on the con­ser­vat­ive and Re­pub­lic­an side than on the lib­er­al and Demo­crat­ic side. An army of journ­al­ists — in­clud­ing Ron Fourni­er, Paul Kane, and oth­ers — have said both sides are to blame. And journ­al­ists led by Jim Fal­lows have de­cried what he first called “false equi­val­ence.” This mal­ady it­self has two com­pon­ents. The first, which in many ways is a lar­ger in­grained journ­al­ist­ic habit that tries migh­tily to avoid any hint of re­port­ing bi­as, is the re­flex­ive “we re­port both sides of every story,” even to the point that one side is giv­en equal weight not sup­por­ted by real­ity. The second, of­ten called the Green Lan­tern ap­proach and typ­i­fied by Bob Wood­ward, is that pres­id­en­tial lead­er­ship — de­mand­ing change, sweet-talk­ing, and threat­en­ing law­makers — could read­ily over­come any dys­func­tion caused by po­lar­iz­a­tion, thus al­loc­at­ing re­spons­ib­il­ity in a dif­fer­ent way that de­flects any sign of asym­metry.

Those de­bates have heated up in the past week or so with the re­lease of a mo­nu­ment­al and im­press­ive new study of the elect­or­ate by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. The study of­fers over­whelm­ing evid­ence of a sharp in­crease in po­lar­iz­a­tion and in tri­bal polit­ic­al char­ac­ter­iz­a­tions over the past two dec­ades, but es­pe­cially in the past few years. It ought to end the de­bate about wheth­er the pub­lic is po­lar­ized.

At first glance, the Pew study shows that both sides have moved sharply — which is true. That top line has made op­pon­ents of the idea of asym­met­ric po­lar­iz­a­tion al­most glee­ful. But the value of this study, based on 10,000 in­ter­views done in a sol­id meth­od­o­lo­gic­al way, lies in its nu­ances. Here it is clear that many changes, es­pe­cially in levels of an­ti­pathy to­ward those on the oth­er side, or to­ward the value of com­prom­ise, have oc­curred sig­ni­fic­antly more strongly on the right.

But it is the top line that has drawn the at­ten­tion of par­ti­cipants in both of the afore­men­tioned de­bates and that de­mands an ad­di­tion­al re­sponse bey­ond that giv­en by my long­time col­league and writ­ing part­ner Tom Mann. Mann wrote in the FixGov blog in re­sponse to a single char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion in an oth­er­wise good re­cap of the study’s find­ings in The Wall Street Journ­al by Alan Mur­ray, a former Journ­al re­port­er who now heads the Pew Cen­ter. Mur­ray wrote, “The study also un­der­mines the no­tion, pop­u­lar in Wash­ing­ton, of “˜asym­met­ric po­lar­iz­a­tion’ — which blames Re­pub­lic­ans for caus­ing the di­vi­sion.”

An­oth­er vet­er­an journ­al­ist, Bob Merry, took the re­cap done by Mur­ray, and that sen­tence, to write an at­tack in The Na­tion­al In­terest on our book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Merry said, based on read­ing the op/ed, “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.” Merry goes on to as­sert that the prob­lem had been driv­en by voters as a res­ult of the di­ver­gent ways they view di­vis­ive is­sues. He uses im­mig­ra­tion as his core ex­ample of how this is not a re­flec­tion of ex­treme views, but reas­on­able po­s­i­tions (ap­par­ently re­flect­ing his own anti-im­mig­ra­tion re­form stance), in re­sponse to Pres­id­ent Obama’s fail­ures.

And our col­league at Na­tion­al Journ­al Ron Fourni­er uses the Pew study to hit back hard at his crit­ics, who have hit him plenty and con­sider him a charter mem­ber of the Green Lan­tern school. Com­mend­ably, he does not simply char­ac­ter­ize the views of crit­ics, but quotes them, in­clud­ing Mann, at length. But Fourni­er says that wheth­er po­lar­iz­a­tion and its res­ult­ing hard-line ap­proaches are tilted more heav­ily to the right than the left doesn’t really mat­ter. “This is my fun­da­ment­al dis­agree­ment with par­tis­an journ­al­ists and polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists who ded­ic­ate their ca­reers to meas­ur­ing in­cre­ments of fault — the GOP’s share of blame is 20 per­cent or 60 per­cent or 80 per­cent. Who cares? Not the av­er­age voter who merely wants her lead­ers to work to­geth­er and get res­ults.”

Let me ad­dress each of these points in turn. First, Mur­ray’s cas­u­al phrase about the Pew study un­der­min­ing the no­tion, pop­u­lar in Wash­ing­ton, of asym­met­ric po­lar­iz­a­tion: Mur­ray tweeted me that he was re­fer­ring to the pub­lic, not Con­gress. But as Mann wrote, since when has Wash­ing­ton had a wide­spread no­tion of this view of pub­lic opin­ion? The no­tion of asym­met­ric po­lar­iz­a­tion is all about law­makers and oth­er polit­ic­al act­ors, not the broad­er pub­lic. Here, the evid­ence is over­whelm­ing and clear. As Prin­ceton polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist No­lan Mc­Carty wrote about Con­gress, “The evid­ence points to a ma­jor par­tis­an asym­metry in po­lar­iz­a­tion. Des­pite the wide­spread be­lief that both parties have moved to the ex­tremes, the move­ment of the Re­pub­lic­an Party to the right ac­counts for most of the di­ver­gence between the two parties.” Take a look at the chart shown here, based on one from our re­port “Vi­tal Stat­ist­ics on Con­gress,” now on the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion web­site.

As for the pub­lic, Mur­ray mis­char­ac­ter­izes his own Pew study by down­play­ing the asym­metry of an­im­os­ity in the pub­lic, a point power­fully made by Chris­toph­er In­gra­ham in The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Wonkblog. Con­sider a few ex­amples: 82 per­cent of con­sist­ent lib­er­als say they be­lieve in com­prom­ise, com­pared with 32 per­cent of con­sist­ent con­ser­vat­ives. Fifty per­cent of con­ser­vat­ives say it is im­port­ant for them to live in a place where most people share their polit­ic­al views, com­pared with 35 per­cent of lib­er­als. Thirty-six per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans say that Demo­crat­ic policies threaten the well-be­ing of the coun­try, com­pared with 27 per­cent of Demo­crats who say the same thing about Re­pub­lic­an policies.

It is true that this re­flects less tri­bal­ism than what we see in Wash­ing­ton or many state le­gis­latures. It is not true, as Merry as­serts, that pub­lic po­lar­iz­a­tion drove or was par­al­lel to that of law­makers and elites. As the Pew study makes clear, in the mid- to late-1990s, we did not have any­where near the level of pub­lic po­lar­iz­a­tion or ideo­lo­gic­al or par­tis­an an­im­os­ity that we have now. In the pub­lic, this phe­nomen­on has been much more re­cent (and is ac­cel­er­at­ing). But in the Gin­grich era in Con­gress, start­ing in 1993, where Re­pub­lic­ans united in both houses to op­pose ma­jor Clin­ton ini­ti­at­ives and moved vig­or­ously from the start of his pres­id­ency to del­e­git­im­ize him, the era of tri­bal­ism star­ted much earli­er, while the ante was upped dra­mat­ic­ally in the Obama years. The fact is that it was not pub­lic di­vi­sions on is­sues that drove elite po­lar­iz­a­tion, but the op­pos­ite: Cyn­ic­al politi­cians and polit­ic­al con­sult­ants in the age of the per­man­ent cam­paign, bolstered by ra­dio talk-show hosts and cable-news pro­du­cers and amp­li­fied by blogs and so­cial me­dia, did a num­ber on the pub­lic.

The elite tri­bal­ism was not all one-sided. To be sure, there was plenty of vit­ri­ol hurled by Demo­crats at George W. Bush. But Demo­crats worked hand-in-glove with Bush at the early, vul­ner­able stage of his con­tro­ver­sial pres­id­ency to en­act No Child Left Be­hind, which gave his pres­id­ency pre­cious cred­ib­il­ity and provided the votes and sup­port needed for his tax cuts. Con­trast that with the early stages of the Obama pres­id­ency.

Merry uses im­mig­ra­tion to dis­pute our char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of the con­tem­por­ary Re­pub­lic­an Party as an in­sur­gent out­lier, dis­missive of sci­ence; no sur­prise that he does not men­tion cli­mate change. As for Ron Fourni­er, I have one point of con­ten­tion and one re­sponse to his ques­tion, “Who cares?” First is the char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of those who be­lieve that the po­lar­iz­a­tion is asym­met­ric as par­tis­ans. There are par­tis­ans who have seized on the ideas, but it is very un­fair to char­ac­ter­ize the schol­ars and most journ­al­ists who have writ­ten about this as biased — just as it would be deeply un­fair to char­ac­ter­ize Fourni­er, a straight-up journ­al­ist of the old school, as an in­stru­ment of Re­pub­lic­ans or the Right.

More im­port­ant is the ques­tion he raised. Does it mat­ter wheth­er the po­lar­iz­a­tion, and the deep dys­func­tion that fol­lows from it, is equal or not, in­clud­ing to the av­er­age voter? The an­swer is a re­sound­ing yes. If bad be­ha­vi­or — us­ing the na­tion’s full faith and cred­it as a host­age to polit­ic­al de­mands, shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment, at­tempt­ing to un­der­mine policies that have been law­fully en­acted, block­ing nom­in­ees not on the basis of their qual­i­fic­a­tions but to nul­li­fy the policies they would pur­sue, us­ing fili­busters as weapons of mass ob­struc­tion — is to be dis­cour­aged or aban­doned, those who en­gage in it have to be held ac­count­able. Say­ing both sides are equally re­spons­ible, in­sist­ing on equi­val­ence as the man­tra of main­stream journ­al­ism, leaves the av­er­age voter at sea, un­able to identi­fy and vote against those per­pet­rat­ing the prob­lem. The pub­lic is left with a deep­er dis­dain for all polit­ics and all politi­cians, and voters be­come more re­cept­ive to dem­agogues and those whose main qual­i­fic­a­tion for of­fice is that they have nev­er served, won’t com­prom­ise, and see everything in stark black-and-white terms.

It is not sur­pris­ing that few people would ac­tu­ally read a vo­lu­min­ous and richly de­tailed study of pub­lic at­ti­tudes, but would rely on Cliff­s­Notes ver­sions and cas­u­al ana­lys­is. It is not sur­pris­ing that some par­tis­ans, and oth­ers who are un­com­fort­able with a char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion that pin­points one side more than an­oth­er, would seize on the cas­u­al ana­lys­is to try to dis­prove the un­com­fort­able thes­is, in­clud­ing by con­flat­ing the pub­lic with the politi­cians and polit­ic­al act­ors. But it is im­port­ant to set the re­cord straight.

What We're Following See More »
1.5 MILLION MORE TUNED IN FOR TRUMP
More People Watched Trump’s Acceptance Speech
18 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Hillary Clinton hopes that television ratings for the candidates' acceptance speeches at their respective conventions aren't foreshadowing of similar results at the polls in November. Preliminary results from the networks and cable channels show that 34.9 million people tuned in for Donald Trump's acceptance speech while 33.3 million watched Clinton accept the Democratic nomination. However, it is still possible that the numbers are closer than these ratings suggest: the numbers don't include ratings from PBS or CSPAN, which tend to attract more Democratic viewers.

Source:
×