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.