Tuesday, April 10, 2018

My View on Polarization in American Politics

On Wednesday, April 11, I will be a panelist at Charlotte Preparatory School's Parent Partnership Event on "Parenting in the Age of Political Divisiveness." In doing some work to gather my thoughts for this much needed conversation, I decided to review two key perspectives about this notion of polarization: whether it exists in a comprehensive level in our nation's politics, or whether it only exists at the elite level, and not in the broader political environment.

Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina contends that American political leaders may be divided and polarized but Americans themselves are not, so that the notion that Americans are deeply divided on fundamental political issues is a myth. In his book "Culture War? The Myth of Polarized America," Fiorina argues that a misinterpretation of election results, the lack of a deep examination of polling data, and selective coverage by the media has created an illusion that America is polarized and divided. Instead, "The explanation is that the political figures Americans evaluate are more polarized. A polarized political class makes the citizenry appear polarized, but it is only that--an appearance" (page 5).

The challenging view, articulated by Emory University's political scientist Alan Abramowitz, contends that polarization is found in both the elites and the masses in America, and that partisans are deeply divided, per his book "The Polarized Public? Why American Government Is So Dysfunctional." In it, Abramowitz argues that "Democrats and Republicans in Washington and in our state capitols are accurately reflecting the divergent views of their supporters, and especially their politically engaged supporters" (page xiii). He goes on to argue, in "The Disappearing Center," that politically engaged Americans are the real source of both civic citizenship and the deepening polarization in the nation.

These two competing arguments of what polarization is has dominated the debate within political science, among many fields wrestling with this issue. Some would contend that, like pornography, they may not be able to define polarization, but they know it when they see it. In an edited book on the subject, William Crotty defines polarization as "an emphasis on extremes in the politics, partisanship, and policymaking of a society" (page 2). As someone who adheres to the Abramowitz camp regarding American political polarization, I would point to not just the elites of American politics who are deeply divided, but those who go to the ballot boxes and elect those elites. In fact, in the research that I'll present here, it's as if voters on the opposite sides of the political spectrum are indeed polar opposites of each other in their responses to some key questions. This "polar opposites" is how I look at polarization, through either the elites or, more importantly, through voters.

To start, I use data from the American National Election Studies (ANES), which does a major survey before and after each election. In it, one of the key questions that I look at are the responses to the question, how does the respondent view themselves politically--as a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent--and then their "strength" of partisanship--strong, not very strong, and among the independents, those who lean to one party over the other. Thus, one can create a spectrum of partisan identification: from strong Democrats to pure independents to strong Republicans.

Then, using the respondent's vote choice for president, a chart can be devised of what level of support a partisan or independent, along with their strength, cast their votes for president. Here are the charts for the 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections for the top of the ticket contest, the presidential contests (the percentages under the categories represent the percentage of the electorate for that category):

In general, at least three-quarters to 97 percent of partisans (strong, not strong, and independent-leaning partisans) will vote for their party's presidential candidates. In the middle, pure independents (typically less than ten percent of the electorate) are the voters who cast a divided vote for president.

This political loyalty to one's party has developed over time, as noted in ANES data from 1952 to 2016. The first graph is a rather "spaghetti" kind of display of data, but I break the graph into two time periods that follow:

In the first time period, of 1952 to 1988, saw partisan loyalties more diffused by the different categories:

But after 1988, the level of loyalty by the different partisan categories becomes smoother and more consistent:

In another way of looking at the polarization of American politics, one can use the popular conception of "red" versus "blue" in terms of states, with battleground states as "purple."

Using the Cook Political Report's classification of 2016's presidential election and the "safe" versus "lean" versus "toss-up" states, a categorization of the various states can be developed into red, blue, and purple states. From this, one can use the 2016 ANES data to look at different factors, such as ideology within a state:

Ideologically, there is definite sorting by red versus blue states, while purple states tend to mirror more closely the national sample.

Another way to look at it is by partisan identification (collapsing strength into strong, not strong, and independent-leaning):

Red and blue states have majorities of their respondents to ANES in the respective party identifications, with purple states nearly evenly divided between self-identified Democrats and Republicans.

And then, by the presidential vote choice within the red, blue, and purple states using ANES responses:

One can compare this survey result by the actual vote totals by these categories of states (courtesy of David Leip's Atlas of Presidential Elections for 2016):

Again, like party identification, red and blue states are almost mirror images of each other, while purple states are evenly divided in aggregate vote totals for both Clinton and Trump.

Finally, there are two interesting questions posed on the 2016 ANES that has been asked in previous presidential years: is there anything that respondent likes about the Democratic and Republican parties?

In breaking down the responses by the party self-identification and strength, one sees how each party views the other (whether there's anything that one side likes about their party and the other side), from both the 2012 and 2016 elections:

So, 84 to 86 percent of strong partisans indicate that there is something that they like about their respective parties, but only 13 to 18 percent say there's something that they like about the opposition. And while moving towards the "middle" lessens the "like" of the home party and a slight increase in the "like" of the opposition, the pure independents really don't like either party-less than a quarter of those respondents say there's something that they like about either Democrats or Republicans.

So, I think, based on the above graphs, that Americans--both elites and (more importantly) the masses (i.e., voters)--are politically divided seems a reasonable conclusion to make and argue; but then again, it's about arguing that perhaps has made our politics so divisive.