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A Glimmer of Hope in Pew’s Polarization Report

The Pew Research Center recently released a report on polarization in the US that has important insights for our field. The report is huge, but luckily, NCDD Board of Directors member John Backman created a wonderful overview of the report’s findings, with an eye toward what it means for our work. We highly encourage you to read John’s thoughts below and add your reflections on the Pew study in the comments section. 

How Far Apart Are We, Really? A Closer Look at Pew’s Polarization Report

by John Backman

The findings look dark, no doubt about it. Play with the numbers, though, and you can begin to see glimmers of hope—and opportunities for D&D practitioners.

The report from the Pew Research Center bears the ominous title “Political Polarization in the American Public,” and the first sentence in the web version is no better: “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.” The nationwide survey of 10,000 adults found that:

  • The two ends of the spectrum are growing. 21% of respondents now identify as “consistently liberal” or “consistently conservative”—double the percentage in 1994.
  • Overlap between parties is in steep decline. Twenty years ago, 64% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat, and 70% of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republican. Today those figures are 92% and 94%, respectively.
  • Hostility is more intense. The percentage of respondents with a highly negative view of the other side has more than doubled since 1994. Worse, most of these “high negatives” believe the opposing party’s policies to be “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”
  • The silos are hardening. Half of consistent conservatives and 35% of consistent liberals value living in a place where most people share their views. Nearly one-third of consistent conservatives and one-quarter of consistent liberals would be unhappy if one of their family married into the other side.

In other words, the American public is moving in a direction diametrically opposed to the bridge-building instincts of most D&D practitioners. On the whole, it’s hard to be happy about the situation.

Until you dig deeper. Some of the under reported findings and unexpressed facts hold more hope for both our public square and our ability as practitioners to make a difference:

If 21% of Americans are now firmly ensconced in their worldviews, then 79% are not.

That leaves roughly 250 million people who, in theory, might be open to an exchange of views with others of different opinion. One key strategy for ensconcing dialogue in our public square, as I see it, is to build a critical mass of people who are (or become) oriented toward dialogue. It’s easier to find participants for that critical mass in a pool of 250 million than it would be if the middle were actually vanishing instead of declining.

The middle of the political spectrum is quiet. Dialogue and deliberation could change that.

The Pew report notes that the people at the ends of the spectrum have a disproportionate voice in the political process because they are more vocal. “Many of those in the center,” the authors write, “remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged.” Yet they don’t have to stay on the edges, and anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that D&D can draw them in. For how many people has a dialogue been their first experience with any sort of civic engagement? And how many of them have been delighted with the process?

Data to validate or refute these impressions would be helpful here, of course. But if the impressions are accurate, they point to the power of dialogue, not only to engage people in the civic/political arena, but to start them out with a civil, productive approach.

There is still common ground to use as a starting point for dialogue, and much of it involves one of our most powerful motivators: the drive to make a good life for ourselves and our loved ones.

According to the Pew report, even the most strident conservatives and liberals want to live near extended family, high-quality public schools, and opportunities to get outdoors. By and large, concern for those closest to us trumps political affiliation: for about three-quarters of respondents, a family member’s marrying across political divides doesn’t matter.

Yes, the trends are troubling. Yet there is more than enough “raw material” for D&D practitioners to advance the cause of dialogue and deliberation.

What do you see in the numbers? Please share your thoughts below in our comments section.

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  1. I agree, John. Contrary to its own framing and most of the media coverage, the real problem Pew captures is less about the public and more about the political system.

    As you say, the vast majority of the public (almost 8 in 10) does not fit Pew’s definition of ideological polarization. I would add that though there is some evidence of a hardening of positions among the ideologically minded, I’m not convinced that most of them are as intensely partisan as they sound in most discussions of Pew’s research, particularly when it comes to local issues as opposed to DC politics.

    I base this in part on my own experience over the last 20 years facilitating focus groups and community conversations around the country. One often encounters a superficial patina of ideological (e.g., talk radio-like) rhetoric among some participants, but it almost always falls away quickly in favor of a more pragmatic approach when the conversation digs into concrete local issues such as improving schools or making streets safer. (For a more formal, research-based analysis that shows why many Americans who fall into Pew’s ideological category are not necessarily intense about it, see Fiorina’s excellent discussion, referenced below.)

    What’s certain is that the political parties have “sorted” and are much more partisan than they’ve tended to be in our lifetime, that party activists on both sides of the spectrum are much more influential via primaries and donations than are average citizens, and that the media rhetoric and framing reinforces what’s most partisan and conflictual about our politics.

    While some structural answers are surely needed with respect to money in politics, the primary system, etc., I agree with John that dialogue and deliberation work can help to engage and empower the “quiet middle.” I would add, however, that it can also constructively engage the more ideologically minded among the public, whom we should neither stereotype nor demonize. They are, after all, active citizens participating in our democracy, and are hardly the source of our political problems.

    For more on these points, see Fiorina’s recent essay in the Post: http://m.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/06/23/americans-have-not-become-more-politically-polarized/), and my own letter to the Times last week: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/23/opinion/a-divided-nation.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=0.

    Will Friedman
    Public Agenda

    • John Backman says:

      Thank you, Will, for an excellent comment–and particularly for differentiating between the nationwide dynamic and the pragmatism (and openness to collaboration?) on the local level. For me, it reinforces the disproportionate influence of the most visible communicators in our public square–congresspeople, pundits, etc.–in creating the image of polarization that does not necessarily reflect reality “on the ground” in many places. (I found Fiorina’s analysis compelling too.)

      Your comment does bring to mind a local anecdote, and I wonder what it says about this topic. Our town recently faced the question of whether to endorse the possible siting of a casino within its borders. Alas, the process of polarization was all too real, AND swift: talking points and cliches were quickly formulated, sides quickly taken, mud quickly slung. I do think the Town Board played a role in this, as I wrote recently in my blog. However, the default to this local polarization makes me wonder whether our town–and maybe others embroiled in controversy–are taking their cues from the image of polarization on the national level. What do you think?

  2. Hi, John. I think we need to distinguish between ideological polarization of the sort that Pew is talking about, and the fact that people argue about stuff, locally as well as nationally, based on their interests and values. And in the case of a casino, it’s almost inevitable that the argument will form into a “Yes/No” framework, which divides people into two camps. That’s polarization of a sort, but generally of a different sort, I think, than what Pew is studying and claims is growing. E.g., quite possibly there were some liberal and conservative types in both camps of the casino conflict.

    Also, I don’t mean to say that ideologically-driven activists are irrelevant to local politics. Sometimes they are. Those who are ideologically passionate tend to be more active politically; the most active among us, particularly if they have resources at their disposal but sometimes even when they don’t, tend to have a bigger impact on public affairs than do average citizens. This point is one of the more important ones to come out of the Pew research in my view. My main point is that most of the general public, especially when it comes to local issues and even when it comes to national ones, are less guided by ideology and more by a kind of pragmatism that asks what will this mean for me, my family and my community. People will disagree on the answer and it can lead to conflict, and that’s a conversation people need to have.

    I think you raise a good question when you ask if the national model of polarized dysfunction leads local conflict to more easily take the form a clichéd and polarized argument. Quite possibly so, but that’s also where D&D practitioners can make a difference. The point is that the public is not so hardened into ideological camps that well-designed dialogue and deliberation cannot make a dent. Some researchers have made this argument to me and I think it comes from a poor reading of the data and lack of experience with what well-designed democratic process can accomplish. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s easy, either!


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