Mark Mellman: Pew study of polarization is incomplete?

Pew’s carefully crafted, richly detailed study of political polarization was released a month ago, but it has not quelled the debate. Is America polarized, more so than in the past? 

“Yes,” say many Pew interpreters. Politico’s headline proclaimed, “Pew poll: Polarization highest in recent history.” Slate led with, “A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that political polarization in the United States has reached levels only seen during the Civil War” (though one will scour the archives in vain for Civil War-era polling).

“No,” says Stanford’s Morris Fiorina, one of the world’s most distinguished political scientists, who concluded “the country as a whole is no more polarized than it was a generation ago.” 

I say, go back to my March columns on this subject for the key to the debate: it depends on what you mean by polarization. 

If by polarized you mean evenly divided, as many commentators do, you need a dictionary more than data, because this misconstrues the term. 

If you mean, as Fiorina does, a deeply divided country in which people express extreme, not centrist, opinions, the Pew data provides less leverage than we might like because many of its issue questions allow only two opposite responses. When the questions allow for middle positions, most people express them. On abortion, for example, a 35 percent minority express an extreme position (it should “never” or “always” be allowed) compared to 38 percent in 1995. Most voters aren’t at the extremes and there has been no increase in polarization, no movement toward the extremes, over the past 20 years. 

With respect to surveillance, 30 percent offered extreme views in Pew’s survey (the National Security Agency should either collect no data or “whatever data it needs”), with most voters somewhere toward the middle. On gun ownership, only 23 percent take one extreme view or the other, while on immigration, a majority take a clearly centrist position. 

An even more telling illustration of moderation comes in response to Pew’s question asking how much President Obama and Republican leaders should each get in compromises addressing the country’s biggest problems. The modal answer, given by just under half the public, is that they should each get 50 percent and give 50 percent — hard to be more in the middle than that. Only 12 percent are on the extremes, wanting the solutions almost all on Obama’s terms or most all on those offered by congressional Republicans.

Polling on some other issues has found an occasional extreme majority or an increasing number of extremists, but for the most part, American public opinion remains ensconced in the middle, and has for some time. 

But what about those lovely Pew graphics, sometimes animated, showing opinions moving away from the middle and to the left or right? They can be a bit misleading, but they are not about movement toward extreme views at all. Rather, they reflect increased ideological and partisan consistency, another definition of polarization (which Fiorina calls sorting). Here the Pew data unambiguously reinforce the assessment I offered in March: “there is strong evidence that this kind of ideological [and partisan] coherence is on the rise,” at least among some segments of the population. 

Finally, some define polarization as partisan “animosity, symbolized by Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerJim Jordan as Speaker is change America needs to move forward Paul Ryan’s political purgatory Republicans fear retribution for joining immigration revolt MORE’s (R-Ohio) now famous exhortation to Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell not yet ready to change rules for Trump nominees The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Trump to press GOP on changing Senate rules MORE (D-Nev.) — “Go f--k yourself!” Pew’s survey, along with other data I cited in March, demonstrates higher levels of such negative feelings. Substantially more Democrats and Republicans dislike each other more, and more intensely, than in the past. Hostility is high and rising. 

Are we polarized? Despite its many talents, the Pew data doesn’t interpret itself. If by polarized we mean more extreme, not so much. If we mean more ideological and partisan coherence or more harboring animus toward political opponents, the answer is yes. But arguing definitions without acknowledging the differences they make won’t resolve the debate.


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.