The working assumption of many political commentators in Washington is that politics is more polarized than it has been in decades and that it’s the Republican Party’s rightward drift that’s to blame. The evidence bears this out—in part. But it also suggests a more complex story.
First, the electorate has polarized. Over the past two decades, the public’s ideological self-description has changed significantly. In 1992, when Bill Clinton campaigned for president as a reform-minded New Democrat, fully 43 percent of adults thought of themselves as moderate, compared to 36 percent conservative and 17 percent liberal. As the 2012 election got underway, the picture looked quite different. Moderates had declined by 8 points, to 35 percent, while conservatives and liberals had each gained 4 points, to 40 and 21 percent respectively.
As Alan Abramowitz has recently shown, a similar shift occurred among voters in presidential elections. In 1972, fully 71 percent placed themselves at or near the ideological midpoint, compared to 29 percent at or near the extremes. By 2008, the share of the electorate at or near the mid-point had fallen by 17 points—to 54 percent—while the share at the extremes rose to 46 percent.
Second, the parties have sorted themselves out along ideological lines. Since 2000, the share of Republicans calling themselves moderate or liberal has fallen from 37 to 27 percent, while the conservative share of Democrats has fallen from 25 to 20 percent. Republicans are more conservative than they used to be, and Democrats are more liberal. Conservatives have increased their share of the Republican Party by 9 points; liberals have increased their Democratic share by 10 points.
Over a longer period, Republicans have changed somewhat more than Democrats. Between 1972 and 2008, Abramowitz finds, Republican voters shifted rightward by 0.7 points on a seven-point scale, from 4.7 to 5.4. (On this scale, 1 means extremely liberal, while 7 means extremely conservative.) Meanwhile, Democratic voters shifted to the left by 0.5 points, from 3.7 to 3.2. Among Republican voters, the percentage of conservatives rose from 55 to 78 percent, while liberal voters among Democrats rose from 38 to 55 percent. Among party activists—the kinds of people who dominate grassroots organizations and presidential primaries and caucuses, the gulf between the parties has become even more pronounced.
The gap between voters and all adults—the former being more conservative—reflects age differentials in ideological commitment. Today, there a direct correlation: the older the person, on average the more conservative. And because older adults vote at much higher rates than young adults, the electorate is even more conservative than the population as a whole.
The story thus far is one of moderate asymmetry: both parties have shifted away from the center, Republicans somewhat more so than Democrats. But a simple fact has accentuated the difference: Because there are twice as many self-styled conservatives as liberals, ideological sorting is bound to produce a more predominantly conservative than liberal party—even if the percentage-point shifts are comparable. As recently as 2000, moderates outnumbered liberals within the Democratic Party by 44 to 29 percent. Today, even after a sharp rise in the liberal share, liberals and moderates are essentially tied, 39 to 38. In 2000, conservatives already outnumbered moderates and liberals by 2 to 1 within the Republican Party, and now it’s 3 to 1. So while there is a liberal Pelosi wing and a moderate Hoyer wing in the House Democratic caucus, among House Republicans we find only shades of conservatism. (That is not to say that differences among Republicans don’t matter; just ask John Boehner.)
So far I’ve left out Independents, whose share of the electorate is large and rising. But bringing them in doesn’t change the story very much. To be sure, Independents are the only major classification still dominated by moderates (41 percent of the total). But just since Obama carried the independent vote in 2008, conservatives have increased their share by 5 points while moderates have fallen by the same amount. Independents are moving with the tide, not against it.
These numbers don’t tell the whole story, however. There’s another key development: above and beyond their ideological disagreements, conservatives and liberals have come to understand the practice of politics differently. In a survey taken right after the Republican sweep in the 2010 midterm elections, 47 percent of American said that it was more important to compromise in order to get things done, versus 27 percent who thought it was more important for leaders to stick to their beliefs even if little got done. Liberal Democrats weighed in on the side of compromise, 58 to 16, moderate Democrats by 64 to 17. But conservative Republicans (the overwhelming majority of their party) favored sticking to their beliefs by 45 to 26. Ten months later, after the debt ceiling fiasco, an outright majority of adults favored compromise, including 62 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of liberals. But pluralities of Republicans and conservatives continued to favor leaders who stuck to their beliefs.
Unlike most other Americans, conservatives seem to believe that compromise represents defeat. It would take a subtle historian to explain why. Perhaps they think that because so many forces are pushing in the direction of bigger and more intrusive government, compromise will alter the pace of change but not the direction. If so, a politics of intransigence represents their only hope; never mind the risks.
There is nothing wrong with a frank and honest debate between two visions of our country’s future. But for the foreseeable future, neither party can definitively defeat the other. The only alternative to reasonable compromise—the sooner the better—is a level of gridlock that would paralyze our economy and eviscerate what is left of our reputation. All of those contributing to our current era of polarization would be wise to take heed.
William Galston is a contributing editor to The New Republic.