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Posted at 2:09 PM ET, 11/24/2010

How polarized are we?

By Ezra Klein

268-1.gifIt's common enough to say our political system is polarized. But is our world polarized, too? I've been reading Farhad Manjoo's “True Enough,” and early in the book, he references an interesting Pew study suggesting that political polarization is leaking into non-political spheres -- and, perhaps more to the point, that this is a new phenomenon.

The Pew survey in question was taken in 2006, shortly before President Bush's State of the Union. It tested, among other things, voter perceptions of the economy. And what it found doesn't sound very surprising, but perhaps it should: "Public views of the economy are deeply split along political lines. Republicans generally see an economy that is thriving; 56% judge it as excellent or good. Democrats and independents see it much more negatively; just 28% of independents and 23% of Democrats say the economy is doing well."

You could assume that this reflects differences in the two groups. Republicans, after all, are somewhat richer than Democrats. But Pew looked at that, too. "Even among those with household incomes of at least $75,000, more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats express a positive view of the economy (65% vs. 31%)."

268-2.gif"Think about this for a minute," wrote Manjoo. "Here were people living in the same economy as one another, folks with a roughly equal likelihood of finding a job or seeing wealth in the housing market or hitting on hard times. They were swimming in the same pool -- but half of them thought the water was lovely, while the other half were dying of chill."

What caught my eye, however, is that it wasn't always thus. "During Clinton's first term, positive views of the economy rose gradually, and at about the same rate, among both Democrats and Republicans," Pew notes. So something actually changed.

The optimistic spin, I guess, is that mediocre economies are more susceptible to polarized views than really good or really bad economies. The Clinton boom was great. The current economy is terrible. You don't have to be glued to CNBC to know either fact. Conversely, the economy in 2005 and 2006 was, well, okay. Not great, but not horrible. Perhaps lacking any strong opinions on it, Americans just defaulted to their feelings about the political leadership.

The more pessimistic spin is that the rise of cable news and the Internet have made it much easier to cocoon yourself in information that takes your political biases as starting ideals and builds your understanding of the world to match them, and that this has actually changed how Americans understand the world. You're perhaps seeing it in the business community's view of the president, which is far more negative and hysterical than one might expect, given that he presided over multiple bailouts, huge tax cuts, industry-friendly reforms to both the health-care and financial sectors and more than $30 billion in lending help to small firms, and is currently pushing more tax breaks for business investment and R&D. Business leaders are the most conservative segment of the population, and also quite high-information, so they'd be a likely place for these distortions.

By Ezra Klein  | November 24, 2010; 2:09 PM ET
Categories:  Political Science, Polls  
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Next: The real story on corporate profits, cont'd


It looks primarily like political bias by Democrats under George W. Bush.

Note that in the ABC consumer confidence by political affliation chart Ritholtz presents, not only does the gap fall back to normal under Obama, but look at the values for, say, Dec09 and 2005-2006. Democrats hardly think the economy is worse off today with 9.6% unemployment than when unemployment was 4.5%-5.0%.

To be balanced, I think the Republicans were somewhat biased in late 2003/early 2004, when confidence levels were about the same as the late 1990s. The values for Republicans for 2005-2006 and 1999-2000 are consistent - the 2005-2006 period was good, just not quite as good as 1999-2000.

Posted by: justin84 | November 24, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Add record high profits for business now, although not adjusted for inflation.

Posted by: bharshaw | November 24, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps in 2002-2006 Democrats were more likely than Republicans to notice the ticking time bombs - housing bubble, rapidly rising public debt, etc. Those things didn't just suddenly appear in the fall of 2008. They had been building for a while. You had to be looking really hard the other way not to see the housing bubble.

Posted by: tl_houston | November 24, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, don't listen to Pew - this isn't new at all. Larry Bartels looks at the phenomenon using data from back to the 1980s [ Bartels, L. M. 2002. "Beyond the running tally: Partisan bias in political perceptions." Political Behavior 24 (2):117-50. ]

Also see:
Lebo, M. J., and D. Cassino. 2007. "The Aggregated Consequences of Motivated Reasoning and the Dynamics of Partisan Presidential Approval." Political Psychology 28 (6):719.

Their data goes back to 1955.

From their introduction:

"Using theories developed from the motivated
reasoning literature of political psychology as well as previous work in economic
voting, we develop hypotheses and test them using fifty years of monthly approval
data aggregated by partisan group. We find strong evidence that changes in eco-
nomic performance are applied dissimilarly by partisan groups to their evaluations
of the president such that partisans of the president’s party are mostly unmoved by
measures of inflation and unemployment. At the same time, those partisans not of
the president’s party do adjust their evaluations of the president in light of changes in these objective economic indicators. This is true during both Democratic and
Republican administrations, creating what we might call symmetric asymmetry. In
short, the blind loyalty of the president’s partisans seems more resistant to change
than is the blind hostility of his opponents."

Posted by: y2josh_us | November 24, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

You could always argue that the link runs the other way: people who were dissatified with Bush and the Republicans' handling of the economy identified themselves as Democrats, and those that were happy identified themselves as Republicans. I mean this is what you'd expect: people unhappy with the party in office supporting the other party.

Posted by: VictorGalis | November 24, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

The literature on polarization in the electorate attributes its primary cause to polarization at the elite level (Zaller 1993). Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope's "Culture War" in 2005 and their 2008 response in the Journal of Politics argues that polarization is almost purely an elite, or "top-down" driven.

The other side (e.g., Abramowitz and Saunders 2008, also in the Journal of Politics) argue that it is a two-way street, but primarily a "bottom-up" phenomenon facilitated by the engaged partisans in the American electorate. Abramowitz has recently released a book that elaborates further on these ideas called The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy.

Posted by: ProfGoose | November 25, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Fascinating and disturbing.

There is another possible explanation.

It is possible that Democrats have a generally more negative view of the US economy, and that there is a constant partisan bias so people of the same party as the President have a more positive view. This makes sense. A large part of the Republican ideology is that the USA is better in every way than Europe.

The evidence comes from the tiny bit of data on opinions under Bush the elder. The economy was in recession so even most Republicans said it was not good. Howeverm slightly more than 20% said it was good or excellent in 1992. That was crazy.

The ratio of fraction of Republicans who say it was good or excellent to fraction of Democrats who said it was good or excellent was about 2 under both Bushes. I think my little story fits the data, and that I have to find more data to distinguish it from your using new technology to create partisan cacoons hypothesis.

Posted by: rjw88 | November 27, 2010 3:13 AM | Report abuse

The difference in the opinions probably has more to do with where people live then their party. Republicans are generally suburban whites in the south and plains, which were booming during the mid-2000's and in some cases are still doing pretty well.

Democratic areas never really had the same boom (the northeast, midwest, northwest), or were outright bad for the entire period (midwest).

Posted by: mgraalum | November 28, 2010 12:08 AM | Report abuse

Aren't self-identified Democrats disproportionally located in more urbanized areas with much higher costs of living? (E.g., NYC, San Francisco, Seattle, etc.) In these places, home ownership is no longer realistically possible for the lower- or middle-class, NYC's local taxes are 90% above the national average, non-upper-class (e.g., non-financial services, etc.) Americans in these locations daily see stark extremes in wealth and poverty; developers and corporations build and displace affordable housing and non-corporation-owned retail businesses in these places, too. Surely these things affect perception about the economy overall. I echo commenter "mgraalum," and strongly urge you to examine partisan affiliation and perceptions of the economy in light of geographic location.

Posted by: wulfw | November 28, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

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