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Are Voters More Polarized? The Answer is Complicated

September 7, 2016
As we head into what seems to be one of the most vitriolic presidential elections in recent history, we need to ask ourselves a central question: Is the American electorate now more deeply divided than before, even polarized beyond repair?

Traditionally, American political parties were characterized as “big tents” – diverse, largely non-ideological coalitions which appealed to a limited number of issues, avoiding litmus tests. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt brought together the broad “New Deal” coalition – Dixiecrats, labor unions, minorities, progressives. Post World War II, in the Eisenhower Era, Daniel Bell declared the “end of ideology.” This almost non-ideological view of parties now seems very dated, given the political decibel level and smash-mouth rhetoric. Moreover, traditional party identification, build upon family ties, religion, and/or geographic region, often generations-old, blurred ideological lines as well in the past. 

However, the latest research findings are surprisingly mixed:

A national polarization survey by the Pew Research Center and administered by Abt SRBI, concluded that: “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life.”

Does this mean that the American public is more polarized than before? Well, no, according to a recent study by Hill and Tausanovitch. They examined both public opinion and senatorial voting for more than 60 years, and concluded that, “For the public, the level of polarization shows no apparent trend over time.” They do find that the public has “sorted” over this period, resulting in more homogenous political parties. They also conclude that, “parties in Congress are more homogenous than parties in the American public.”

Then we have other reason for concern, according to recent research in Public Opinion Quarterly (Summer, 2016):
  • Flaxman, Goel and Rao find that social networks and search engines divide us further. However, somewhat counterintuitively, these social networks also expose people to the other side’s positions as well.
  • Davis and Dunaway find that media fragmentation, the rise of social media and expansion of cable and satellite programming have propelled the “sorting.” However, this effect is isolated to individuals highly interested in news and politics.

So, yes, our elected officials are clearly more polarized than in recent history, leading, no doubt, to the heightened vitriolic discourse. And, the “big tent” parties have largely eroded as the electorate has clearly “sorted” itself by party. Whatever the case, the growing divide has been fueled by the bare- knuckle rhetoric, unlimited election funding, and a polarized media landscape. 
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