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Pew study finds more polarized Americans increasingly resistant to political compromise

June 12, 2014 at 6:25 PM EDT
A major study by the Pew Research Center finds the increasing polarization in the U.S. is not just in our politics. American adults are less likely to compromise and often decide where to live, who to marry and who their friends should be based on what they already believe. Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report join Gwen Ifill to assess the data.
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GWEN IFILL: A huge new Pew Research Center study of 10,000 American adults finds us more divided than ever, with personal and political polarization at a 20-year high.

The number of people identifying themselves as either consistently liberal or consistently conservative has doubled in the last decade. They are less likely to compromise and often decide where to live, who to marry, and who their friends should be based on what they already believe.

Joining us now to talk about the new American extremes are Michael Dimock, vice president of research at Pew and the lead author on the survey, and Amy Walter, national editor at The Cook Political Report.

Let’s start with the self-labeling question, Michael Dimock, 10 percent in 1994, 2004 — 11 percent in 2004, 21 in 2014. People said they were either consistently liberal or consistently conservative.

MICHAEL DIMOCK, Pew Research Center: Right, and we’re not even going by what people call themselves.

We’re actually asking you a series of questions about major political values, the role of government, social issues, are immigrants a benefit to our society or a harm to our society, and what we’re finding is more and more people consistently answering all of those questions in a liberal or a conservative direction, still a minority, at 21 percent, but doubling over the last 20 years.

GWEN IFILL: And still people like each other a lot less, growing partisan antipathy. It’s gone from, 1994, Democratic attitudes about the Republican Party from 16 percent all the way to 38 percent as very unfavorable now, same thing for Republicans, from 17 percent in 1994 to 43 percent in 19 — in 2014.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Right.

I mean, it’s not unusual to kind of dislike the other party, but now the very unfavorable, from pollster-speak, is up. And we asked a follow-up question. We said, well, would you so far as to say the other party poses a threat to the well-being of the nation, or wouldn’t you go that far?  Most of those people would go that far. You have more than a third of Republicans saying the Democratic Party is a threat to the nation, more than a quarter of Democrats saying the same thing about the Republicans.

GWEN IFILL: Amy, what is the chicken and what is the egg here?

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Is it that people choose to live among people like themselves and therefore they become like that, or because they decide that they believe — have this set of beliefs and they choose to only associate with people like themselves?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Well, so I think there’s probably a little bit of both. Right?

And that — technology has only helped to exacerbate this. So, there was a time in which it’s not just that you choose to live in communities where people think a lot like you. And this study definitely showed that, that people who are more liberal live in urban areas. People who are more conservative live in rural areas.

They cite things like diversity, if you’re liberal, as the most important value for them. Out in the rural areas, where Republicans are, they cite religious issues, having an ability to connect on religious issues, as their most important value.

And then it gets exacerbated by the fact that you can literally isolate yourself now in a bubble thanks to our technology. On the Internet, on cable television, you never, ever now have to see or hear anything that disagrees with your world view or your ideological point of view.

GWEN IFILL: Anecdotally, we kind of knew this. It’s kind of stunning to see the numbers.

AMY WALTER: Right.

GWEN IFILL: It is just about politics, Michael, or is it about everything that we are?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Well, it goes further, picking up on what Amy said.

Some of the choices that may lead to those, what some people call echo chambers, where your own views just get rebounded, they made not be choices made on political grounds.

They are choices that you’re making for other priorities in your life, but they’re correlated with politics and they lead you to be around other people who share your views, whether it’s preferring to live in a big house that’s far from things, even if you have to drive, which 75 percent of conservatives tell us is important to them, or living in a small community, where you can walk to things, even if you have to live in a smaller house, which 75 percent of liberals say would be their preference.

GWEN IFILL: What happens to the middle? Do they fall into the chasm? We have a number here on political compromise, right? Thirty-four percent who are consistently liberal don’t really much believe in compromise; 33 percent who are consistently conservative don’t much believe in compromise, but in the middle, there are 54 percent who are neither chicken nor egg, just to stick with our poultry comparison…

GWEN IFILL: … who say, you know, maybe.

AMY WALTER: So here’s the problem.

And the study points this out, too. Those people are the majority, but they’re not the majority of voters. They don’t show up to vote, especially in primaries. The people who are the most engaged voters are also the most ideologically partisan and they’re also the ones who dislike the other party the most.

What’s driving them to the polls in most cases is not love for their party, but the dislike for the other side.

GWEN IFILL: Is that part of what of what we saw in this week’s big political surprise in Virginia?

AMY WALTER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

The people who are the most motivated to go out and vote are the people that fit into this consistently liberal/consistently conservative category. And the people in the middle, they stay home.

And so we talk about government — you get the government that you elected. Well, we have gotten that we have elected, that 10 to 20 percent of the electorate has voted for. And so those folks in the middle, their voice isn’t heard. In some cases, it because they haven’t put their voice out there. They haven’t voted.

GWEN IFILL: Is partisanship the same thing, Michael, as polarization? Are we mixing terms?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: You’re mixing a little bit.

The political scientists would want us to hold those things apart. And we tried here to be true to that. Ideology, the way you think about the world, your priorities, what the role of government is, that’s one element of this. And we’re seeing this sorting out, as some would call it, into these wings, so to speak.

But partisanship, I think, is more about this us-vs.-them mentality, idea that the other side is a threat, idea that the other side is really, really wrong, but there’s no middle ground in this thing.

So the compromise figures for most Americans, when they say, where should Obama and Republicans end up when they disagree, most Americans, 50/50. It’s just natural. Split the difference. But to the folks on the left and the right, that’s not the natural meeting point. That’s not where they should end up.

They should — the liberals tell us that Obama should get two-thirds of what he wants in any deal with the Republicans. And the conservatives say the same thing the other way.

GWEN IFILL: So, on specific issues, the most partisan of the issues we debate all the time, gun rights, or abortion, or immigration reform, this doesn’t bode well.

AMY WALTER: Right, because of what we’re saying in a — what we, as a broader electorate, are saying, we want people to compromise.

When we look at the people who are turning out and voting, those people have no desire to compromise. In fact, that is the absolute opposite of what they would like to see. So, it’s not even so much about the policy itself. It’s the idea that the — that they could be in a room with somebody from a different party actually coming up with an agenda where both sides have to give in.

GWEN IFILL: So, it’s policy-specific, Michael?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: It is and it isn’t.

I mean, one of the interesting things that we also wanted to tease out is just because you’re consistently liberal on views or consistently conservative doesn’t necessarily make you extreme. It doesn’t mean that you hold really hard-line views.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: And, in fact, one of the challenges of finding a center that can create a countervailing force is, the center is really fragmented. It’s all over the place, and they’re not necessarily moderate in their views. They’re not always looking for the middle ground.

Many of them hold very, very strong views on issues like abortion or homosexuality or the role of government. It’s just that they don’t fit cleanly into ideological categories. They’re a little bit all over the map, and, therefore, really hard to gather into a new force in politics.

AMY WALTER: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center, Amy Walter of Cook Political Report, thank you. This is an amazing piece of study work.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.