A fascinating new poll out today from the Pew Research Center reports on how they’ve tracked Americans’ beliefs on political issues over time. It’s wide-ranging and deep and a fascinating look at what Americans believe. One of the most important parts is how the two coalitions – Republicans and Democrats – have changed over the last twenty years. And it takes a sledgehammer to myths that liberals have been telling themselves.
Myth #1: Polarization is asymmetric
Asymmetric polarization, as espoused by analysts like the Brookings Institute’s Thomas Mann, goes something like this: Democrats have created a big tent governming [sic] majority that tolerates lots of different views and, as a result, has a kind of “moderate center” that has remained relatively consistent; while Republicans have exiled the centrists in their party as grassroots voters have taken over and made their party more extreme all on their own.
That’s flatly not true.
The typical measurement of asymmetric polarization comes from a Congressional metric called DW-NOMINATE, which at its heart measures how often elected representatives in Congress vote with each other. The flaw here is that it doesn’t take into account the relative leftness or rightness of a proposal being voted on. If there were a vote in Congress to repeal the 2nd Amendment, for example, with all Republicans voting against and Democrats split evenly between for and against, would be a data point contributing to Republicans becoming more “extreme” and Democrats being relatively centrist. DW-NOMINATE has certain utility in evaluating legislative coalitions, but as an actual measure of how left-wing or right-wing any coalition is, it’s severely lacking.