Divisions between Democrats and Republicans have expanded far beyond the traditional fault lines based on race, education, gender, the urban-rural divide and economic ideology.
Polarization now encompasses sharp disagreements over the significance of patriotism and nationalism as well as a fundamental split between those seeking to restore perceived past glories and those who embrace the future.
Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, described the situation this way in an email to me:
The reason we have the levels of polarization we have today, Hetherington continued,
Democrats are determined not only to block any drive to restore the America of 1963 — one year before passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — but also to press the liberal agenda forward.
Toward the end of the 20th century, Republicans moved rightward at a faster pace than Democrats moved leftward. In recent decades, however, Democrats have accelerated their shift toward more liberal positions while Republican movement to the right has slowed, in part because the party had reached the outer boundaries of conservatism.
Bill McInturff, a founding partner of the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, released a study in June, “Polarization and a Deep Dive on Issues by Party,” that documents the shifting views of Democratic and Republican voters.
Among the findings based on the firm’s polling for NBC News:
From 2012 to 2022, the percentage of Democrats who describe themselves as “very liberal” grew to 29 percent from 19.
In 2013, when asked their religion, 10 percent of Democrats said “none”; in 2023, it was 38 percent. The percentage of Republicans giving this answer was 7 percent in 2012 and 12 in 2023.
The percentage of Democrats who agreed that “Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people” grew from 45 percent in 1995 to 67 percent in 2007 to 82 percent in 2021, a 37-point gain. Over the same period, Republican agreement rose from 17 to 23 percent, a six point increase.
“The most stable finding over a decade,” McInturff reports, is that “Republicans barely budge on a host of issues while Democrats’ positions on abortion, climate change, immigration, and affirmative action have fundamentally shifted.”
The Democrats’ move to the left provoked an intensely hostile reaction from the right, as you may have noticed.
I asked Arlie Hochschild — a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Strangers in Their Own Land” who has been working on a new book about Eastern Kentucky — about the threatening policies conservatives believe liberals are imposing on them.
She wrote back: “Regarding ‘threats felt by the right’ I’d say, all of them — especially ‘trans’ issues — evoke a sense that ‘this is the last straw.’ ” In their minds, “the left is now unhinged, talking to itself in front of us, while trying to put us under its cultural rule.”
For example, Hochschild continued,
The sense of loss is acute among many Republican voters. Geoffrey Layman, a political scientist at Notre Dame, emailed me to say:
Republican aversion to the contemporary Democratic agenda has intensified, according to two sociologists, Rachel Wetts of Brown and Robb Willer of Stanford.
In the abstract of their 2022 paper, “Antiracism and Its Discontents: The Prevalence and Political Influence of Opposition to Antiracism Among White Americans,” Wetts and Willer write:
Wetts and Willer call this ideology “anti-antiracism” and argue that it “is prevalent among white Americans, particularly Republicans, is a powerful predictor of several policy positions, and is strongly associated with — though conceptually distinct from — various measures of anti-Black prejudice.”
Sympathy versus opposition to antiracism, they continue, “may have cohered into a distinct axis of ideological disagreement which uniquely shapes contemporary racial views that divide partisan groups.”
They propose a three-part definition of anti-antiracism:
The degree to which the partisan divide has become still more deeply ingrained was captured by three political scientists, John Sides of Vanderbilt and Chris Tausanovitch and Lynn Vavreck, both of U.C.L.A., in their 2022 book, “The Bitter End.”
Vavreck wrote by email that she and her co-authors described
The Sides-Tausanovitch-Vavreck argument receives support in a new paper by the psychologists Adrian Lüders, Dino Carpentras and Michael Quayle of the University of Limerick in Ireland. The authors demonstrate not only how ingrained polarization has become, but also how attuned voters have become to signals of partisanship and how adept they now are at using cues to determine whether a stranger is a Democrat or Republican.
“Learning a single attitude (e.g., one’s standpoint toward abortion rights),” they write, “allows people to estimate an interlocutor’s partisan identity with striking accuracy. Additionally, we show that people not only use attitudes to categorize others as in-group and out-group members, but also to evaluate a person more or less favorably.”
The three conducted survey experiments testing whether Americans could determine the partisanship of people who agreed or disagreed with any one of the following eight statements:
1) Abortion should be illegal.
2) The government should take steps to make incomes more equal.
3) All unauthorized immigrants should be sent back to their home country.
4) The federal budget for welfare programs should be increased.
5) Lesbian, gay and trans couples should be allowed to legally marry.
6) The government should regulate business to protect the environment.
7) The federal government should make it more difficult to buy a gun.
8) The federal government should make a concerted effort to improve social and economic conditions for African Americans.
“Participants were able to categorize a person as Democrat or Republican based on a single attitude with remarkable accuracy (reflected by a correlation index of r = .90).”
While partisan differences over racial issues have a long history, contemporary polarization has politicized virtually everything within its reach.
A March Wall Street Journal/NORC poll at the University of Chicago found that over the 25-year period since 1998, the percentage of adults who said patriotism was “very important” to them fell to 38 percent from 70.
Much of the decline was driven by Democrats and independents, among whom 23 and 29 percent said patriotism was very important, less than half of the 59 percent of Republicans.
A similar pattern emerged regarding the decline in the percentage of adults who said religion was very important to them, which fell to 39 percent from 62 percent in 1998. Democrats fell to 27 percent, independents to 38 percent and Republicans to 53 percent.
Or take the question of nationalism.
In their 2021 paper, “The Partisan Sorting of ‘America’: How Nationalist Cleavages Shaped the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election,” Bart Bonikowski, Yuval Feinstein and Sean Bock, sociologists at N.Y.U., the University of Haifa and Harvard, argue that the United States has become increasingly divided by disagreement over conceptions of nationalism.
“Nationalist beliefs shaped respondents’ voting preferences in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” they write. “The results suggest that competing understandings of American nationhood were effectively mobilized by candidates from the two parties.”
In addition, Bonikowski, Feinstein and Bock argue, “over the past 20 years, nationalism has become sorted by party, as Republican identifiers have come to define America in more exclusionary and critical terms, and Democrats have increasingly endorsed inclusive and positive conceptions of nationhood.” These trends “suggest a potentially bleak future for U.S. politics, as nationalism becomes yet another among multiple overlapping social and cultural cleavages that serve to reinforce partisan divisions.”
Bonikowski and his co-authors contend that there are four distinct types of American nationalism.
The first, creedal nationalism, is the only version supported by voters who tend to back Democratic candidates:
The other three types of nationalism trend right, according to Bonikowski and his colleagues.
Disengaged nationalists, “characterized by an arm’s-length relationship to the nation, which for some may verge on dissatisfaction with and perhaps even animus toward it,” are drawn to “Trump’s darkly dystopian depiction of America.”
Restrictive and ardent nationalists both apply “elective and ascriptive criteria of national belonging,” including the “importance of Christian faith.”
Restrictive and ardent nationalists differ, according to the authors, “in their degree of attachment to the nation, pride in America’s accomplishments, and evaluation of the country’s relative standing in the world.” For example, 11 percent of restrictive nationalists voice strong “pride in the way the country’s democracy works” compared with 70 percent of ardent nationalists.
These and other divisions provide William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings who studies how well governments work, the grounds from which to paint a bleak picture of American politics.
“Issues of individual and group identity — especially along the dimensions of race and gender — have moved to the center of our politics at every level of the federal system,” Galston wrote by email. “The economic axis that defined our politics from the beginning of New Deal liberalism to the end of Reagan conservatism has been displaced.”
How does that affect governing?
Despite — or perhaps because of — the changing character of politics described by Galston, interest in the outcome of elections has surged.
Jon Rogowski, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, cited trends in polling data on voter interest in elections in an email:
Where does all this leave us going into the 2024 election?
Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, provided the following answer by email: “When partisan conflict is no longer primarily about policies, or even values, but more about people’s basic worldviews, the stakes do feel higher to partisans.”
Weiler cited poll data showing that
In this context, Weiler continued,
Perhaps Bill Galston’s assessment was not bleak enough.
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