Yes, Polarization Is Asymmetric—and Conservatives Are Worse

Don't be fooled by a new report from the Pew Research Center. Both sides are more politicized these days, but it's not equal.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

For the past few years, simmering debates have taken place among scholars, journalists, and pundits over the meaning of polarization in American politics.

One of those debates has been about the level of polarization in the broader public. Scholars such as Mo Fiorina of Stanford have maintained that the public is not really polarized, and that any changes are a natural sorting process. Others, such as Alan Abramowitz of Emory, muster data to show that the citizenry has become more polarized.

The second debate has been about the nature of polarization among elites, especially in Washington. Tom Mann and I, among others, have said that the polarization in the capital is asymmetric, much more on the conservative and Republican side than on the liberal and Democratic side. An army of journalists—including Ron Fournier, Paul Kane, and others—have said both sides are to blame. And journalists led by Jim Fallows have decried what he first called “false equivalence.” This malady itself has two components. The first, which in many ways is a larger ingrained journalistic habit that tries mightily to avoid any hint of reporting bias, is the reflexive “we report both sides of every story,” even to the point that one side is given equal weight not supported by reality. The second, often called the Green Lantern approach and typified by Bob Woodward, is that presidential leadership—demanding change, sweet-talking, and threatening lawmakers—could readily overcome any dysfunction caused by polarization, thus allocating responsibility in a different way that deflects any sign of asymmetry.

Those debates have heated up in the past week or so with the release of a monumental and impressive new study of the electorate by the Pew Research Center. The study offers overwhelming evidence of a sharp increase in polarization and in tribal political characterizations over the past two decades, but especially in the past few years. It ought to end the debate about whether the public is polarized.

At first glance, the Pew study shows that both sides have moved sharply—which is true. That top line has made opponents of the idea of asymmetric polarization almost gleeful. But the value of this study, based on 10,000 interviews done in a solid methodological way, lies in its nuances. Here it is clear that many changes, especially in levels of antipathy toward those on the other side, or toward the value of compromise, have occurred significantly more strongly on the right.

But it is the top line that has drawn the attention of participants in both of the aforementioned debates and that demands an additional response beyond that given by my longtime colleague and writing partner Tom Mann. Mann wrote in response to a single characterization in an otherwise good recap of the study’s findings in The Wall Street Journal by Alan Murray, a former Journal reporter who now heads the Pew Center. Murray wrote, “The study also undermines the notion, popular in Washington, of ‘asymmetric polarization’—which blames Republicans for causing the division.”

Another veteran journalist, Bob Merry, took the recap done by Murray, and that sentence, to write an attack in The National Interest on our book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Merry said, based on reading the op-ed, “The Mann-Ornstein thesis was based on two perceptions that have been exploded by the Pew study—that the problem was largely a Washington phenomenon and reflected a disconnect between the politics of Washington and the politics of the country; and that it was largely a product of one party that had gone berserk.” Merry goes on to assert that the problem had been driven by voters as a result of the divergent ways they view divisive issues. He uses immigration as his core example of how this is not a reflection of extreme views, but reasonable positions (apparently reflecting his own anti-immigration reform stance), in response to President Obama’s failures.

And my colleague Ron Fournier uses the Pew study to hit back hard at his critics, who have hit him plenty and consider him a charter member of the Green Lantern school. Commendably, he does not simply characterize the views of critics, but quotes them, including Mann, at length. But Fournier says that whether polarization and its resulting hard-line approaches are tilted more heavily to the right than the left doesn’t really matter. “This is my fundamental disagreement with partisan journalists and political scientists who dedicate their careers to measuring increments of fault—the GOP’s share of blame is 20 percent or 60 percent or 80 percent. Who cares? Not the average voter who merely wants her leaders to work together and get results.”

Let me address each of these points in turn. First, Murray’s casual phrase about the Pew study undermining the notion, popular in Washington, of asymmetric polarization: Murray tweeted at me that he was referring to the public, not Congress. But as Mann wrote, since when has Washington had a widespread notion of this view of public opinion? The notion of asymmetric polarization is all about lawmakers and other political actors, not the broader public. Here, the evidence is overwhelming and clear. As Princeton political scientist Nolan McCarty wrote about Congress, “The evidence points to a major partisan asymmetry in polarization. Despite the widespread belief that both parties have moved to the extremes, the movement of the Republican Party to the right accounts for most of the divergence between the two parties.”

Presented by

Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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