Yes, Polarization Is Asymmetric—and Conservatives Are Worse

By Norm Ornstein

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.”

As for the public, Murray mischaracterizes his own Pew study by downplaying the asymmetry of animosity in the public, a point powerfully made by Christopher Ingraham in The Washington Post’s Wonkblog. Consider a few examples: 82 percent of consistent liberals say they believe in compromise, compared with 32 percent of consistent conservatives. Fifty percent of conservatives say it is important for them to live in a place where most people share their political views, compared with 35 percent of liberals. Thirty-six percent of Republicans say that Democratic policies threaten the well-being of the country, compared with 27 percent of Democrats who say the same thing about Republican policies.

It is true that this reflects less tribalism than what we see in Washington or many state legislatures. It is not true, as Merry asserts, that public polarization drove or was parallel to that of lawmakers and elites. As the Pew study makes clear, in the mid- to late-1990s, we did not have anywhere near the level of public polarization or ideological or partisan animosity that we have now. In the public, this phenomenon has been much more recent (and is accelerating). But in the Gingrich era in Congress, starting in 1993, where Republicans united in both houses to oppose major Clinton initiatives and moved vigorously from the start of his presidency to delegitimize him, the era of tribalism started much earlier, while the ante was upped dramatically in the Obama years. The fact is that it was not public divisions on issues that drove elite polarization, but the opposite: Cynical politicians and political consultants in the age of the permanent campaign, bolstered by radio talk-show hosts and cable-news producers and amplified by blogs and social media, did a number on the public.

The elite tribalism was not all one-sided. To be sure, there was plenty of vitriol hurled by Democrats at George W. Bush. But Democrats worked hand-in-glove with Bush at the early, vulnerable stage of his controversial presidency to enact No Child Left Behind, which gave his presidency precious credibility and provided the votes and support needed for his tax cuts. Contrast that with the early stages of the Obama presidency.

Merry uses immigration to dispute our characterization of the contemporary Republican Party as an insurgent outlier, dismissive of science; no surprise that he does not mention climate change. As for Fournier, I have one point of contention and one response to his question, “Who cares?” First is the characterization of those who believe that the polarization is asymmetric as partisans. There are partisans who have seized on the ideas, but it is very unfair to characterize the scholars and most journalists who have written about this as biased—just as it would be deeply unfair to characterize Fournier, a straight-up journalist of the old school, as an instrument of Republicans or the right.

More important is the question he raised. Does it matter whether the polarization, and the deep dysfunction that follows from it, is equal or not, including to the average voter? The answer is a resounding yes. If bad behavior—using the nation’s full faith and credit as a hostage to political demands, shutting down the government, attempting to undermine policies that have been lawfully enacted, blocking nominees not on the basis of their qualifications but to nullify the policies they would pursue, using filibusters as weapons of mass obstruction—is to be discouraged or abandoned, those who engage in it have to be held accountable. Saying both sides are equally responsible, insisting on equivalence as the mantra of mainstream journalism, leaves the average voter at sea, unable to identify and vote against those perpetrating the problem. The public is left with a deeper disdain for all politics and all politicians, and voters become more receptive to demagogues and those whose main qualification for office is that they have never served, won’t compromise, and see everything in stark black-and-white terms.

It is not surprising that few people would actually read a voluminous and richly detailed study of public attitudes, but would rely on CliffsNotes versions and casual analysis. It is not surprising that some partisans, and others who are uncomfortable with a characterization that pinpoints one side more than another, would seize on the casual analysis to try to disprove the uncomfortable thesis, including by conflating the public with the politicians and political actors. But it is important to set the record straight.

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