Political partisanship and the Big Bang

(Updated June 6, 2012, at 9:20 am MDT)

Yesterday the Pew Research Center released a new report entitled “Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years.” The Pew study, as widely reported by the media, shows that the partisan divide in this country has grown to a chasm of 18 percentage points, up from 10 points in 1987. Of course, this simply quantifies what has been readily apparent to everyone in the last couple of years.

Far more interesting if you care at all for politics or sociology is the other information in the report. And there is a lot of it. Just look at the report’s Table of Contents:


Section 1: Understanding the Partisan Divide Over American Values

  • Partisan Differences Now Predominant
  • Why the Gaps Have Grown
  • Independent Polarization

Section 2: Demographics and American Values

  • Age Differences in Social and Political Values
  • Gender Gaps Modest Overall
  • White and Blacks Differ Over Role of Government
  • Education and Income Gaps

Section 3: Values About Economic Inequality and Individual Opportunity

  • Perceptions of Economic Inequality
  • Perceptions of Values Gaps
  • The Rich-Poor Divide
  • Success Admired When Achieved through Work
  • Why Are People Poor?
  • More Say the Poor Work, but Can’t Earn Enough
  • Economic Gaps over Personal Empowerment
  • Financial Satisfaction Equals All-Time Low
  • Few See Unlimited Growth
  • Most Upsetting: Cheating Gov’t Out of Benefits

Section 4: Values About Government and the Social Safety Net

  • Government Evaluations Increasingly Partisan
  • Young People Still More Positive about Government’s Performance
  • New People in Washington
  • Compromise Continues to Garner Public Support
  • Support for the Safety Net Falls
  • Declining Republican and Independent Support for the Safety Net
  • Safety Net: Beyond Party
  • Government Involvement in Health Care

Section 5: Values About Business, Wall Street and Labor

  • Country’s Strength Seen as Linked to Business
  • Deepening Divide over Regulation
  • Views of Wall Street
  • Opinions about Labor Unions Hold Steady
  • Privacy Threats from Business, Government

Section 6: Religion and Social Values

  • Partisan Differences over Religious Beliefs
  • Trends in Traditional Values
  • Views on Traditional Values
  • School Boards and Homosexual Teachers
  • Democrats Split over Family Values
  • Less Support for Banning “Dangerous” Books

Section 7: Values About Foreign Policy and Terrorism

  • Shifting Partisan Views on Global Involvement
  • Peace through Strength
  • Most Say Countries Helped by U.S. Are Resentful
  • Views of Anti-Terror Tactics
  • Fight for U.S., Right or Wrong?

Section 8: Values About Immigration and Race

  • Views of Immigration and Immigrants
  • Attitudes About Race
  • Views of Discrimination
  • Public Rejects Preferential Policies
  • Views of Interracial Dating

Section 9: Trends in Party Affiliation

  • Race and Party Affiliation
  • Gender Gap in Party ID
  • Religion and Party Identification
  • Silent Generation Turns More Republican
  • Little Shift in Ideology
  • Republicans Unhappy with Party

About the Values Survey Data

  • Survey Methodology in Detail
  • About the Party Identification Database

There’s something for everyone here. Each section includes charts and graphs summarizing the findings, and the entire report runs 11 pages. Don’t let the report’s title or media reports tell you what information is included. Read the sections you care about and interpret them for yourself.

Of note are the details about how the survey — done entirely by telephone — was conducted. Much was done to eliminate bias, check for age of respondents, not focus too much on one part of the country, etc. Cell phone respondents were even offered $5 to compensate them for minutes used. Not clear, however, are adjustments made for self-selection — those respondents, or rather, non-respondents, who opted not to answer their phones at all when they saw the call was from a pollster. Who are these people? Are they similar in any way? Does their lack of response skew poll results, and if so, how? Has anyone done a study of people don’t respond to studies?

In closing, some speculation: If Republicans and Democrats keep moving toward the extremes and losing members as a result, will the country ultimately be composed of a single, more moderate “independent” party … only to start dividing again into liberal and conservative factions which will then become separate parties which will continue to grow apart, etc? Are we looking at a sort of political Big Bang cycle of expansion and collapse?

8 thoughts on “Political partisanship and the Big Bang

  1. This is interesting – lots to ponder. PEW is generally regarded as accurate and reliable.
    (Cohort info is critical to really understand polls and surveys. Your next to last paragraph presents some important points.)
    Can’t wait to see how things play out

    1. I’m curious about the people who don’t answer such phone calls because I’m one of them. If I’m typical, does that mean Pew doesn’t get a representative sampling of suburban white divorced female independent college-educated retired senior citizens from western states?

      1. I don’t answer/talk to robots either – and don’t know anyone who does…so I’m suspicious
        That and having built research surveys, know how is easy it is to guide answers towards a certain desired result
        As the world has changed, and tendency to “mispeak” has grown, reliance on surveys isn’t as reliable as used to be?

        1. I once tried to devise an accurate, unbiased survey of my publication’s readership and ran into all kinds of problems deciding which kinds of questions (true-false, multiple choice, open-ended, etc.) would elicit the information I wanted and how to word each question so as not to “lead” the respondent and skew the results. I also had to consider which type or types of questions could mostly easily be tabulated, etc. It was an eye-opening exercise that gave me a lot of insight into the problems and pitfalls of polls and surveys, and how easily one can get distorted results, accidentally or otherwise.

  2. Thanks for bringing more attention to this interesting report, PT. Despite any misgivings over the poll’s scientific precision I think it is very meaningful. The basic message I get is that while America has not lost its confidence, the two tribal memes represented by the major parties are getting farther apart. Personally I suspect this simply reflects a natural outcome of growing prosperity overall. Reflecting back over my own life I see a country that has better average prosperity than ever before. Life is basically comfortable and unthreatening for most people. Ironically, the achievement of a social safety net such as unemployment insurance, social security and medicare has removed a lot of stress from people’s thinking. That leaves them more vulnerable I think to memes like Rush Limbaugh messages. People do not view such as endangering those basic underpinnings, but they should. Judging just by what happened in Wisconsin last night, that safety net may be developing some very big holes, and if that actually happens, prepare for some big and painful changes.

    The one chart on this post is a little misleading because it alone does not support an 18 point difference between the two parties, but the report itself clarifies how they came to that conclusion.

    1. Although it may not be the primary cause, I think much of the growing partisanship is whipped up by partisan news media and the tendency of people to watch and read sources they agree with (eg, deliberately liberal MSNBC and proudly conservative Fox News). Slanted media drive and reinforce audience views and audience views drive media content; it’s a close-minded, self-perpetuating system, gaining momentum as it circles the drain.

      You’re correct; I grabbed the wrong chart to show the 18-pt. spread. I’ve added the correct one and changed another one to something I thought was more interesting.

  3. I’m no doubt nearly alone in thinking that the root cause of the great divide is because the leadership of both popular political parties tend to be the least principled examples of any philosophy. The elected leadership of both parties actually believe that banning something will alter human nature, or the laws of physics rather than just frighten their constituents into coerced compliance. There was a time when any attempt by any governmental jurisdiction to break in and spy on innocent private citizens property would have been met by legal and armed resistance. But no more. Now days people accept the proposed ban of large cups of Coke just as readily as they accept the ban of certain herbs (drugs) and personal defense (guns). My thinking as that the only rational political thought comes from the fringes of each party affiliation where some advocacy of principled thoughts and actions still remain.

    1. Goodness knows we can’t have principled examples of any philosophy mucking up the works in Washington. Reality, man; they have to deal with harsh reality! As for the public blithely accepting bans on their Big Gulps, marijuana, and guns — it’s their non-acceptance that keeps making headlines …

      But principled thought coming only from the fringes? I think it might be precisely that type of principled thought that has so many abandoning the fringes and returning to the more moderate middle ground.

... and that's my two cents