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You Didn't Just Imagine It:
Politics Really Is More Polarized


Antiabortion and pro-abortion activists clash at a Washington protest. A (AP).

The absence of ideology is one of the enduring myths of American politics. Americans have long seen themselves as non-ideological. A plurality describe themselves as moderate, rather than liberal or conservative. And many Americans claim they vote for "the candidate, not the party."

But there is growing evidence that, when it comes to picking candidates, identifying with the political parties and filling out ballots, ideology now is the principal driver of the voters' decision-making.

The latest such evidence, based on data from a massive poll of voters in the 2006 election, was delivered at last week's American Political Science Association meeting in Chicago in a paper by Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University.

"To a considerable extent, electoral competition in the United States is now structured by
ideology," he writes. "Voters with relatively coherent ideological preferences choose between parties with relatively clear and distinct ideological positions."

That represents a profound change over the past half century from when political scientists first began to study this question."The vast majority of ordinary voters showed little evidence of using an ideological framework to evaluate political parties or presidential candidates and very limited understanding of basic ideological concepts such as liberalism and conservatism," Abramowitz writes.

Two forces have combined to change all that. One is the rising level of education in America. With greater education has come far greater sophistication among voters as they watch and listen to candidates and participate in election activity.

The second is growing political combat among political elites. That factor is increasingly evident, whether in the tone of floor debates in the House and Senate, the fractious discussions about politics on cable television, or the vitriolic attacks routinely exchanged on the internet.

"At the elite level, Abramowitz writes, "ideological differences between the parties are probably greater now than at any time in the past half century."

That there are ideological divisions among elites is not in question. But scholars and political analysts have argued for years about whether ordinary Americans are similarly afflicted. Abramowitz argues that they are.

To reach his conclusion, Abramowitz used data collected from the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. This study was produced by a consortium of 37 colleges and universities, who pooled resources and ideas to conduct through Polimetrix, Inc., an internet-based survey of 36,000 eligible voters--24,000 of whom voted in the midterm elections.

Among those who voted in 2006, Abramowitz found a significant correlation between their underlying ideology, their views on 12 issues--among them, abortion, partial birth abortion, stem cell research, social security privatization, capital gains tax cuts and the war in Iraq--and how they voted in House and Senate elections.

"The dramatic differences between the views of Democratic and Republican voters on a wide range of cultural, economic, and national security issues indicate that partisan polarization in Congress does not exist in a vacuum," he writes. "Democrats and Republicans in Congress appear to be accurately reflecting the views of their supporters in the electorate."

The same held true for independent voters who lean toward one party or another. These independents appeared to be even more ideologically driven than partisans who call themselves weak Republicans or weak Democrats. "These findings suggest that the high level of party loyalty of independent leaners in 2006 and other recent elections is based on their ideological orientations, not just a short-term preference for one party or the other," Abramowitz writes.

The exceptions to this pattern were the non-voters--eligible voters who for whatever reason choose not to participate in the elections. They are far less driven by ideology than are voters and may be retreating to the sidelines because they do not feel comfortable with the increasingly ideological contours of politics.

"As electoral competition in the United States has become increasingly structured by ideology, those citizens who lack a coherent ideological outlook may be increasingly alienated from the two major parties and from the electoral process itself," Abramowitz writes.

What this means is that there may be no easy way out of the polarized politics that have defined the past decade. Campaining for president, Republicans and Democrats routinely decry the absence of bipartisan cooperation in Washington and argue that it's time for people to come together to solve problems.

In the next breath, however, these same candidates offer policies on issues ranging from Iraq to health care to tax cuts that reflect the underlying ideological gulf between left and right in America.

Bland calls by the candidates for an end to polarization may register with those Americans who never or no longer vote often in presidential and congressional elections. If Abramowitz is correct, the rest of the electorate is far more attuned to the underlying ideology of the candidates. As long as the two parties are sharply divided in the way they see the world, polarization may continue to dominate our politics.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  September 5, 2007; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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