The Pew Research Center recently published a study titled “Political Polarization in the American Public,” which prompted a wave of alarmist reporting about how Americans are more ideologically divided than ever before. But, as Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina explains, that's not what Pew's data actually shows.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center published a study titled, “Political Polarization in the American Public.” It was like the polar ice caps had suddenly melted.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A huge new Pew Research Center study of 10,000 American adults finds us more divided than ever, with personal and political polarization at a 20-year high.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Pew Research Center finds Americans are deeply divided, which we know, but common ground is quickly disappearing.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Is America getting more divided? Pew reports the answer is yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Pew Center's president, Alan Murray, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that we’re living in the Divided States of America and that, quote, “The study should put to rest any notion that polarization is solely a Washington phenomenon.” But Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina dug into Pew’s data and says that, in fact, that’s not what it shows.
MORRIS FIORINA: Polarization, in common parlance, means people moving toward the extremes, and that’s really not what's happening and not what the Pew Report showed. 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 and the Democrats have gotten rid of their conservative wing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The profile of a member of the party is better defined than it used to be, say back in the ‘80s, when you had Scoop Jackson Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans?
MORRIS FIORINA: Exactly. Today, the simple fact is party and ideology are lined up better. They used to crosscut 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’re still just as large a group, and I think that’s what really was missed by the discussion of the Pew Report, is that the inconsistents are still the largest part of the population.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the inconsistents are still a plurality of the population? Has it gone up or down at all since 1994?
MORRIS FIORINA: The inconsistents have definitely declined in number, but you have to dig deep into how the index to the Pew Study is constructed, that there are ten policy questions and they give people dichotomous choices, things like, “Do you favor military strength or diplomacy?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s list a few more of those. “Do you think blacks are responsible for their own condition or is it racial discrimination? Do you think homosexuality should be discouraged or not?”
MORRIS FIORINA: And you have to choose one side or the other and most people will oblige and do that. But just because you say, for example, I favor military strength over diplomacy doesn’t mean it’s a hundred to nothing choice. It may be sort of 60-40. And so, what they’re pointing out is that somebody who is sort of on one side, slightly, for example, on military strength, probably now tends also to be slightly on that same side on these other items. It really doesn’t say how far toward the other side they’ve gone. The data show increases in consistency, not extremity.
Now, the middle, I like to say the middle is a muddle because, in fact, you could have people who are very extreme in their positions but inconsistent, a stereotypical right-wing populist who wants, for example, to deport all illegal aliens and cut off services to the poor, and so forth but, at the same time, wants to hammer big business and tax them, and so forth. Now, that person will not have moderate positions but because they’re inconsistent they end up in the center of the Pew distributions which is really mixed, not center.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, but aren’t we more extreme? I mean, in the run-up to the 2012 campaign most of the Republican candidates either declared that they didn't believe in evolution or, at the very least, supported the allotting of equal time to creationism in the classroom. And another Pew study said that Republicans are less inclined than they were in 2009 to say that humans have evolved!
MORRIS FIORINA: If you’d have asked that same question 30 years ago, there would have been a lot of Democrats who didn’t believe in evolution, because there were a lot of Southern Evangelicals who were in the Democratic Party in that era. I actually have these tables in some of my lectures, and I shock my students about the number of people who don’t believe in evolution. It really hasn’t changed in the United States in 30 years. But it no longer crosscuts the parties. It’s now all in the Republican Party. Now, a majority of the American people [LAUGHS], by the way, don’t believe in Darwin. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the study doesn’t show polarization, if it merely shows sorting into political parties, that’s not nothing, right?
MORRIS FIORINA: I would strongly object to the word “merely.” In fact, it is highly significant that what we now have is 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. So no, I think it has extremely negative influences on our politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There were also some numbers related to how much one party mistrusts the other to basically run the country.
MORRIS FIORINA: When the parties were more heterogeneous you sort of knew there were people basically like you in the other party, whereas today, if you’re a Democrat or a Republican you look at the other party and you say, these people really are different in so many ways. So it’s logical to think you would mistrust the other party more than you used to, simply because they are more different from you now than they used to be.
But I’m just saying the critical distinction between sorting and polarization is that polarization implies the middle is going away, that there is no center, there’s just two competing sides. Sorting says that you could have two very well sorted parties and still have a very large unsorted middle, which is what the current state of play is in the American public opinion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m going to invoke Stephen Colbert’s great introduction to the English language truthiness here.
Is there a sense among the media and among the people that, you know, the country is more polarized? It just feels that way. The extreme voices are louder and there’s a lot more of them.
MORRIS FIORINA: Perception’s important, and study after study shows, in fact, that people think the country is more polarized than it actually is because of all the shout shows on TV and all of the blogs, etc. But, if you actually look at the audiences for these shows, you look at the audiences for the blogs, the visitors, they are tiny. The majority of the American public still feels that we ought to be able to work out our differences and come to a reasonable middle ground, and they’d like to see the government do that. But the problem is the public face of politics in America is driven by a tiny, unrepresented extreme slice of the population. It does give a perception that is damaging.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Looking at the data though, things are a little bit worse, right, 2 or 3%?
MORRIS FIORINA: Well, put it this way, if you look at the distribution of ideology in the United States as a whole, it has simply not changed since ’72. If you look at the distribution of partisanship, it has simply not changed since ’84. A Gallop registered the highest proportion of independents in history in 2013. If you look at issues, in fact, people are lumping up in the center as much as ever. So if you look at the American population as a whole, no, I think the answer is there is simply no evidence of polarization.
But, again, if you look at party sorting, if you look at how the relationship between ideology and party has changed, then there is a great deal of what I call party polarization. But the problem is we shouldn’t mistake that for polarization of the population as a whole.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve really made me feel better. [LAUGHS]
MORRIS FIORINA: [LAUGHS] I hope so. I, I think the American population deserves to feel better but I think the political order is not serving them very well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Mo.
MORRIS FIORINA: You’re very welcome, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Morris Fiorina is a professor of political science at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.