Just how polarized is the USA?
Forget what you’ve heard about an America divided into warring camps, living in red and blue states or congressional districts. We actually agree on lots of things.
That, at least, is the conclusion of a study conducted by the Program for Public Consultation, whose goal is to give the public a louder voice in the policymaking process. The study is also available on the website of Voice of the People.
The group analyzed answers to more than 300 survey questions taken over the past few years and dealing with public-policy choices, and it compared responses from people who live in red congressional districts or states with those who live in blue districts or states.
The analysis found overwhelming convergence in attitudes, regardless of the makeup of the state or district where people live. People in red districts or states and those in blue districts or states truly disagreed with each other just 4 percent of the time.
“We were surprised,” said Steven Kull, the PPC director. “We thought there would be much greater difference.”
Kull doesn’t dispute the fact that Congress is polarized along partisan lines. But he said it’s wrong to blame that on a polarized population. Members of Congress, he said, are responding not to their constituents but to the power (and money) of special interests that have their own, partisan agendas.
Nor does he dismiss signs that people are sorting themselves ideologically.
“It does have this effect on voting behavior,” he said. “Does that mean that there are significant differences in terms of what they think government should do? No … . When it comes to policy, the differences are more modest.”
Kull said the policymaking process in Washington is driven by special interests rather than by the values and priorities of the public. If lawmakers listened to the public more, he said, “You would find common ground.”
Most people, he added, want to see results and prefer balanced solutions. The deeper you go to probe people’s attitudes about policy options, the more convergence is observed.
But wait. There is another view, offered by Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University who has written extensively on the topic of polarization.
Abramowitz prefers to look at the issue through the differences between Republicans and Democrats in red states, blue states and purple states, not just by comparing the districts. He also argues that the differences on a number of basic issues that are at the heart of the national political debate underscore the degree to which the country is divided.
Abramowitz made the point that there is often significant polarization even within a swing state. He cited Wisconsin as one example. “You can get a (liberal Democrat) Tammy Baldwin elected to the Senate two years after (conservative Republican) Ron Johnson gets elected.”
He said he divided the country into red, blue and purple states on the basis of the 2012 survey by American National Election Studies and compared the states on factors such as party and ideological identification and on people’s positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act and gun control. In all cases, he said, there are notable differences among red, blue and purple states.
For example, in red states, 49 percent of people identify with or lean to the Republican Party. In blue states, the percentage is 36. Democrats make up 42 percent of the population in red states, but 54 percent in blue states.
By his analysis, people in red states are much less likely to say they are supporters of abortion rights or stricter gun laws. People in blue states are notably more supportive of same-sex marriage.
On the healthcare law, Abramowitz finds narrower differences. In blue states, 42 percent support the law, compared with 41 percent in purple states and 37 percent in red states. Opposition is higher in red states (45 percent vs. 35 percent in blue states and 38 percent in purple states).
Abramowitz’s conclusion is that polarization is real and not just limited to members of Congress. “On every issue,” he said, “the difference was highly statistically significant.”