Who is more polarized, the people or politicians?

Published 4:56 pm Sunday, November 26, 2017

As political debates over the issues heat up, you’ll find no shortage of publications that conclude that the American people are so polarized that they are blindly partisan, and have little respect for each other.  Is that the case? Or is our national polarization more about the partisan rancor of politicians in Washington DC?  We look at several polls to test which is the case.

“You probably don’t need to anyone to tell you this, but Americans are more polarized than ever before on the topic of presidential approval,” writes Dr. Chloe Carmichael, writing in the Huffington Post. “According to a recent Pew Research poll, 88 percent of Republicans approve of President Trump, while just 8 percent of Democrats approve.”  She then goes on to explain how political polarization can be addressed by her psychology profession.

She’s hardly alone. The Pew Research Center has sounded the alarm for years, claiming that the extremes (liberal and conservative) have been rising over the last three decades, and how the median Democrat is further away from the median Republican. What you mostly see is the collapse of the center.  Like Dr. Carmichael, The Atlantic’s report presumes the presence of polarization in their question for solutions to the problem. “The American public is divided — over economic policy, social policy, foreign policy, race, privacy and national security, and many other things,” they write.

But not all are in agreement with this assessment. Writing in the Washington Post, Professors Seth J. Hill (UCSD) and Chris Tausanovitch use more extensive data from the American National Election Studies, to find that public polarization has not recently emerged.  There are fewer liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, the result of something known as “party sorting,” which does not necessarily lead to political extremism.

“The result is much more homogeneous parties, even though the ideology of the public as a whole has not changed very much,” the authors note, even as they find evidence of politicians between more extreme. The conservative Hoover Institute reaches a similar conclusion about the public.

Who is right? With help from Kelby Bibler, I posed that question to the students of Vaughn May’s political science course at Belmont University, and challenged them to come up with some answers. We looked at surveys of public opinion on politics, as well as voting records of Congress, and this was what we found.

In an Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center (AP-NORC) poll at the time, 14 percent identified themselves as a strong Democrat, while 10 percent claimed to be a strong Republican.

Moderate Democrats made up 18 percent of the sample, with Democrat-leaners at 14 percent and 18 percent of the sample claiming to be independent. There were 11 percent “Lean Republican” and another 15 percent “Moderate Republican.” Just less than a quarter of the sample claimed to be strongly linked to a political party, a pretty small number compared to the over distribution of partisan responses, most of which were pretty centrist.

Now compare those numbers to the voting records of politicians in Washington DC, compiled by the American Conservative Union (ACU).

Only a fraction of representatives and senators had a moderate voting record (based on a 25 vote sample), even when we expanded it to include all of those who voted between 26 percent conservative and 74 percent conservative.

You’ll find a lot more zeroes (pure liberal) and 100s (perfect conservative) than moderates in the House and Senate in recent years, though it was a different story decades ago.

Our elected officials in Washington DC would like you to believe that Americans are a pretty polarized people, so they can justify their hyper-partisan voting streaks.

But in reality, this country is dominated by moderates who have little representation in Washington, DC.  Perhaps that’s why approval ratings for President Trump and Congress are so low, and why so many people believe our country is headed in the wrong direction.