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Defining polarization, part two

Last week we examined two alternative understandings of polarization. One emphasizes deep divisions and extreme opinions, while the other focuses on even divisions. Though the latter stretches the concept almost beyond recognition, it’s the more common usage by the commentariat. In both cases, the evidence for polarization is mixed. On some issues we are deeply divided, on others not. And on some matters the country divides evenly, while on others divisions are far from even.

At least three other conceptions of polarization appear frequently in public discussion — one focusing on coherence, another on partisanship and a third on animosity. 

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James Madison famously argued in the Federalist Paper  No. 10 that one cure for the “mischiefs of faction” (polarization) was crosscutting cleavages — each of us has a multiplicity of identities and interests, values and views. When cleavages “crosscut,” when there are no permanent enemies and no permanent allies, the taste for all-out warfare wanes. But when positions are coherent, when there seems like only one divide, when it is always the same set of people facing off against one another, regardless of the issue, then real (political) warfare breaks out.

Though the statistics are fairly complex, there is strong evidence that this kind of ideological coherence is on the rise, at least among the wealthy and the politically engaged. There is no doubt that crosscutting cleaves are on the decline in Congress, but it is also happening in at least some other segments of society. 

Another view of polarization focuses on partisanship as a driving force. Despite all the talk about independents, the simple fact remains that most Americans are partisan and that partisanship does more to structure political attitudes than any other demographic, sociological or psychological factor. 

A few weeks ago I described a polling experiment in which party labels overwhelmed substance in determining support for an education plan. But the central and increasing role of partisanship is evident in myriad other ways. In 1992, Pew found 86 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Democrats agreeing on the need for stricter regulations to protect the environment. Twenty years later, the same 93 percent of Democrats hold that view, but Republican agreement has declined to just 47 percent. In 1987, 86 percent of Democrats and 92 percent of Republicans claimed to have “old fashioned views about family and marriage.” Now, 88 percent of GOPers compared to only 60 percent of Democrats cling to those views. Indeed, across 48 values questions Pew tracks, the partisan differences jumped from 10 points in 1987 to 18 points today, out-pacing gaps defined by any other personal characteristic.

The partisan gap in presidential approval has been widely noted. The three biggest gaps on record were for the last three presidents — Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton — all of whom experienced gaps of 60 points or more. For Nixon, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, these gaps were in the range of 30-45 points.

A final (at least for now) perspective on polarization emphasizes animosity, symbolized by Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) now famous exhortation to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — “Go f--k yourself!” Stanford University professor Shanto Iyengar and his colleagues marshal a variety of data demonstrating that Democrats and Republicans simply like each other less than they used to. The number of partisans giving negative ratings to the other party grew from about 40 percent in the ’80s to more than 60 percent in 2008. Or, from a different perspective, in 1960, just 5 percent of Americans claimed they would be “upset” if their child married someone of the other party. By 2010, that number climbed to 40 percent. 

In short, it’s taken two columns to make a simple point — whether the country is more polarized or not depends importantly on just what is meant by polarization.


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.