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
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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.

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