WILLIAM GALSTON JANUARY 7, 2010
A just-released Gallup survey illuminates the dynamics of party competition and underscores the increasing polarization of American politics. As Gallup previously reported, conservatives (40 percent of the total) have surged ahead of moderates (36 percent) to become the largest ideological group in the electorate; Republicans are far more conservative (71 percent) than Democrats are liberal (38 percent); and Republicans are much more homogeneous than Democrats. What the new survey adds is a picture of persistent change over time. Since 2000, the conservative share of the Republican Party has grown by 9 percent, as has the liberal share among Democrats. During the same period, the moderate share has declined by 7 points among Republicans and 8 points among Democrats.
The parties, in short, are significantly more polarized than they were when Al Gore and George W. Bush squared off. This doesn’t mean that inter-party cooperation is impossible, but it is noticeably more difficult than it was a decade ago, which was hardly a Golden Age of bipartisanship.
The other noteworthy development is the increased conservatism of independents. After eight years of stability, the share of conservatives among independents surged by 5 points during the past year, while the numbers of moderates and liberals both dropped. It is not clear whether this represents an ideological shift among long-time independents, the increasing inclination of populist conservatives to call themselves independents rather than Republicans, or some of both trends. But one thing is clear: Because shifts among independents contributed significantly to the Democrats’ midterm victory in 2006, this recent trend is one more indication--as if another were needed--that they will face a much stiffer challenge this year.