Partisanship vs Centrism
Robert A. Levine
Gallop polls in the first quarter of 2021 showed that more Americans were Democrats than Republicans, but the largest bloc of voters identified as independents or centrists. 30 percent of people in the survey called themselves Democrats, 25 percent Republicans, 19 percent were independents who leaned Democratic and 15 percent were independents who leaned Republican. Thus, independents overall were 34 percent vs 30 percent Democratic and 25 percent Republican.
According to various polls during the last decade, pluralities to small majorities of Americans identify themselves as centrists, moderates, or independents. The variability in statistics are probably related to how the surveys were conducted and questions asked, what year data was collected, and whether bias was present in the polling organizations. Notwithstanding, moderates and centrists were usually the largest bloc. This means extremists in both political parties, generally the most vocal, do not represent most of the citizenry, though avid partisanship among politicians makes government dysfunctional.
In October 2013, an NBC News/Esquire poll had 51 percent of Americans labeling themselves as centrists, 44 percent of whom did not believe their views were represented by either party. A poll by The Third Way published in May 2014, had 37 percent moderate, 42 percent conservative and 21 percent liberal. 42 percent of millennials identified as moderates in this survey. These were the youngest group, seeming to indicate America will be growing more moderate in the future. Similarly, non-white and Hispanic participants described themselves as moderate by a plurality of 44 percent.
A poll by the Pew Center in April 2015 revealed 39 percent of Americans considered themselves independents, 32 percent Democrats, and 23 percent Republicans. The data came from interviews with more than 25,000 citizens. In more than seventy-five years of Pew polling, this was the highest percentage of independents ever reported. Those with post-graduate or college degrees leaned Democratic as did racial minorities and those religiously unaffiliated. Millennials also favored Democrats 51 to 35 percent. Mormons and white evangelical Protestants were overwhelmingly Republican. White Southerners and white men without college degrees tended to be Republican, and there was a GOP bias of four percentage points among citizens over sixty.
Though centrists may represent the largest political group in America, animosity and partisanship between parties is the strongest it has been in decades according to a Pew Study in 2016 and Washington Post poll in 2017. Party members associate negative qualities with members of the opposing party, a rising tide of mutual antipathy making it challenging for the two parties to govern together. Negative feelings between party members have increased over the years, more so since 2000, the process labeled ‘affective partisan polarization’ or negative polarization by political scientists. Antipathy towards the opposition party is a major motivating factor for partisans, and it is difficult for democracy to function as each side demonizes the other and compromise is a struggle.
Though various surveys show a plurality or majority of Americans are not extremists or partisans, the partisans are more politically active than their moderate brethren. Their agendas are the ones debated in the halls of government, determining the laws that are or are not enacted. A CBS poll in 2011 had 85 percent of Americans favoring compromise by politicians to get things done, including 75 percent of Republicans. However, their message was apparently not transmitted to politicians in Washington and state capitals. Another factor driving partisanship is that the wealthy top one percent is politically zealous and contributes large sums to officeholders and candidates with views similar to theirs.
Partisanship is also more evident now because the percentage of Americans labeling themselves ‘consistently conservative’ or ‘consistently liberal’ has doubled in the last twenty years from 10 to 21 percent. In addition, Democrats and Republicans are more likely to socialize with people having similar political positions. There are also media voices that amplify differences between the parties and benefit from the ‘climate of bitterness.’ Polarization in both Houses of Congress is at its highest level in nearly a hundred and fifty years.
In many democracies, ‘identity’ is the critical determinant of how individuals cast their ballots. People vote for politicians because they share the same religion, race, or ethnicity. These factors may be more important than whether candidates are honest or competent or have the same positions on issues, though often voters are in the dark about these aspects because they have not investigated them. Identity politics reinforces partisanship, particularly in nations riven by tribal, religious, or ethnic hatreds and fears.
American politics has become more tribal in the last quarter century, dominated by partisans in both parties. With their own values, each tribe has its own facts regarding history, economics, and science. Beliefs about climate change and global warming is an example. Members of each tribe tend to think similarly and have similar interpretations of events and views about political figures, as well as comparable personality traits. Interestingly, CT scans of brains in each group show similar structural changes. Conservatives tend to have larger amygdalas, part of the limbic system involved in processing emotions, such as fear, anger, disgust and pleasure. Liberals tend to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that deals with uncertainty, handling conflicting information, impulse control, morality and ethics. In both tribes beliefs can be changed, but it is difficult when brains may process information differently.
‘Tribalism’ has been critical in the growth of partisanship. In the past, citizens’ identities were through families, communities, churches, employment, unions, clubs, lodges, and so forth. People were part of something greater than themselves. But these bonds have been sundered by modern society. Divorce and single parent families are common. Small towns and rural communities are in decline, with young people moving away. The lack of connection and of belonging to something has impacted Americans negatively. Alcohol and drugs have been an escape for some and others have chosen to be active members of political parties, adopting the characteristics of their ‘tribes.’ Social media may also augment the stances partisans take. This makes it harder to compromise or see the humanity and understand the positions of opponents.
Americans need to learn to treat political opponents with respect and dignity which may be difficult when opponents support bold-faced political lies. Particularly harmful is the lie that the presidential election of 2020 was stolen and actually won by Donald Trump, when there is no evidence to support this claim. If American democracy is to thrive, the flame of partisanship must be lowered to allow both Republicans and Democrats to work for the good of the country rather than constantly battling each other. And we need more independents to speak up.
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