Reality, myth behind use of polarization

Polarization is a term frequently used but rarely defined. That failure accounts, in part, for the polarized headlines on the subject, some of which decry “increasing polarization” while others explode “the myth of polarization.” Often these writers are talking about rather different phenomena using the same term.

One meaning of polarization derives from the word “poles” — as in people moving to polar opposites. By this definition a polarized America is a deeply divided country in which people express extreme, not centrist, opinions, and increasing polarization would indicate movement toward the extremes by voters. On some issues we find such movement, while on others we don’t.

At the most general level is self-ascribed ideology. The University of Chicago’s General Social Survey examines all adults, going back to the ’70s, when the largest number of Americans — about 40 percent — identified as moderates. Since then, that number has barely budged, while the tiny number of those who call themselves “very liberal” or “very conservative” has also remained fairly constant.

The exit polls, which sample voters, tell only a slightly different story. In 1976, 49 percent called themselves moderates, compared to 41 percent in 2012. The exit poll numbers have risen and fallen a bit more often, but the decline in moderation is fairly small, at least compared to the magnitude of the shouting about polarization.

A third data source shows a bit more movement to the poles, though not the far ones. In 1974, 27 percent of respondents to the American National Election Study said they were “moderate, middle of the road,” a number that had declined to 22 percent by 2008. At the same time, those calling themselves “extremely conservative” or “extremely liberal” rose from 2 percent to 6 percent. There was greater increase in the number of those calling themselves either liberal or conservative — as opposed to both moderate and “slightly” liberal or conservative — from 17 percent to 27 percent. It’s not much movement to the poles, but some movement away from the center.

What about specific issues? Our survey with North Star Research for the Bipartisan Policy Center and USA Today again yields some insights (though errors are my own). When it comes to solving the budget problem, few Americans are extreme: only 19 percent prefer a plan that has either all budget cuts or all tax increases, with the rest favoring some mix. An ANES question on the government’s role in job creation actually shows movement to the middle. In 1972, 32 percent took an extreme view on whether the government should guarantee everyone a good job and standard of living or whether that should be left up to the individual. By 2008, extreme views were down to 21 percent.

However, when it comes to ObamaCare and gay marriage, our poll found 64 percent and 66 percent respectively holding very strong views on one side or the other. So, on this definition, evidence for polarization is mixed.

Another underlying meaning of polarization refers to even division. Scholarly or even dictionary support for this definition of polarization is quite thin, but it is the way a great many — too many — pundits use the term. Talk about the 50-50 nation was more prevalent in the aftermath of the 2000 and 2004 elections, but there is still evidence of even division on various indicia. For example, right now, Americans divide about evenly on presidential approval, on whether the government should do more to help people or leave that to individuals and the private sector, and even on the Affordable Care Act. The national vote for the House of Representatives was also closely divided, with Democrats besting Republicans by about 1 point.

It goes without saying, though, that on a host of issues, and in a variety of elections, the divisions are far from even. Thus, by this strained definition, polarization is again evidenced in some respects, but not in others.

Part II on polarization coming soon.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.