Divisions between Democrats and Republicans have expanded far beyond the traditional fault lines based on race, education, gender, the urban-rural divide and economic ideology.
Polarization now encompasses sharp disagreements over the significance of patriotism and nationalism as well as a fundamental split between those seeking to restore perceived past glories and those who embrace the future.
Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, described the situation this way in an email to me:
Because political beliefs now reflect deeply held worldviews about how the world ought to be — challenging traditional ways of doing things on the one hand and putting a brake on that change on the other — partisans look across the aisle at each other and absolutely do not understand how their opponents can possibly understand the world as they do.
The reason we have the levels of polarization we have today, Hetherington continued,
is because of the gains non-dominant groups have made over the last 60 years. The Democrats no longer apologize for challenging traditional hierarchies and established pathways. They revel in it. Republicans see a world changing around them uncomfortably fast and they want it to slow down, maybe even take a step backward. But if you are a person of color, a woman who values gender equality, or an LGBT person, would you want to go back to 1963? I doubt it. It’s just something we are going to have to live with until a new set of issues rises to replace this set.
Democrats are determined not only to block any drive to restore the America of 1963 — one year before passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — but also to press the liberal agenda forward.
Toward the end of the 20th century, Republicans moved rightward at a faster pace than Democrats moved leftward. In recent decades, however, Democrats have accelerated their shift toward more liberal positions while Republican movement to the right has slowed, in part because the party had reached the outer boundaries of conservatism.
Bill McInturff, a founding partner of the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, released a study in June, “Polarization and a Deep Dive on Issues by Party,” that documents the shifting views of Democratic and Republican voters.
Among the findings based on the firm’s polling for NBC News:
From 2012 to 2022, the percentage of Democrats who describe themselves as “very liberal” grew to 29 percent from 19.
In 2013, when asked their religion, 10 percent of Democrats said “none”; in 2023, it was 38 percent. The percentage of Republicans giving this answer was 7 percent in 2012 and 12 in 2023.
The percentage of Democrats who agreed that “Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people” grew from 45 percent in 1995 to 67 percent in 2007 to 82 percent in 2021, a 37-point gain. Over the same period, Republican agreement rose from 17 to 23 percent, a six point increase.
“The most stable finding over a decade,” McInturff reports, is that “Republicans barely budge on a host of issues while Democrats’ positions on abortion, climate change, immigration, and affirmative action have fundamentally shifted.”
The Democrats’ move to the left provoked an intensely hostile reaction from the right, as you may have noticed.
I asked Arlie Hochschild — a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Strangers in Their Own Land” who has been working on a new book about Eastern Kentucky — about the threatening policies conservatives believe liberals are imposing on them.
She wrote back: “Regarding ‘threats felt by the right’ I’d say, all of them — especially ‘trans’ issues — evoke a sense that ‘this is the last straw.’ ” In their minds, “the left is now unhinged, talking to itself in front of us, while trying to put us under its cultural rule.”
For example, Hochschild continued,
When I asked a Pikeville, Ky., businessman why he thought the Democratic Party had become “unhinged,” Henry, as I’ll call him here, studied his cellphone, then held it for me to see a video of two transgender activists standing on the White House lawn in Pride week. One was laughingly shaking her naked prosthetic breasts, the other bare-chested, showing scars where breasts had been cut away. The clip then moved to President Biden saying, “these are the bravest people I know.”
The sense of loss is acute among many Republican voters. Geoffrey Layman, a political scientist at Notre Dame, emailed me to say:
They see the face of America changing, with white people set to become a minority of Americans in the not-too-distant future. They see church membership declining and some churches closing. They see interracial and same-sex couples in TV commercials. They support Trump because they think he is the last, best hope for bringing back the America they knew and loved.
Republican aversion to the contemporary Democratic agenda has intensified, according to two sociologists, Rachel Wetts of Brown and Robb Willer of Stanford.
In the abstract of their 2022 paper, “Antiracism and Its Discontents: The Prevalence and Political Influence of Opposition to Antiracism Among White Americans,” Wetts and Willer write:
From calls to ban critical race theory to concerns about “woke culture,” American conservatives have mobilized in opposition to antiracist claims and movements. Here, we propose that this opposition has crystallized into a distinct racial ideology among white Americans, profoundly shaping contemporary racial politics.
Wetts and Willer call this ideology “anti-antiracism” and argue that it “is prevalent among white Americans, particularly Republicans, is a powerful predictor of several policy positions, and is strongly associated with — though conceptually distinct from — various measures of anti-Black prejudice.”
Sympathy versus opposition to antiracism, they continue, “may have cohered into a distinct axis of ideological disagreement which uniquely shapes contemporary racial views that divide partisan groups.”
They propose a three-part definition of anti-antiracism:
Opposition to antiracism involves (1) rejecting factual claims about the prevalence and severity of anti-Black racism, discrimination, and racial inequality; (2) disagreeing with normative beliefs that racism, discrimination and racial inequality are important moral concerns that society and/or government should address; and (3) displaying affective reactions of frustration, anger and fatigue with these factual and normative claims as well as the activists and movements who make them.
The degree to which the partisan divide has become still more deeply ingrained was captured by three political scientists, John Sides of Vanderbilt and Chris Tausanovitch and Lynn Vavreck, both of U.C.L.A., in their 2022 book, “The Bitter End.”
Vavreck wrote by email that she and her co-authors described
the state of American politics as “calcified.” Calcification sounds like polarization but it is more like “polarization-plus.” Calcification derives from an increased homogeneity within parties, an increased heterogeneity between the parties (on average, the parties are getting farther apart on policy ideas), the rise in importance of issues based on identity (like immigration, abortion, or transgender policies) instead of, for example, economic issues (like tax rates and trade), and finally, the near balance in the electorate between Democrats and Republicans. The last item makes every election a high-stakes election — since the other side wants to build a world that is quite different from the one your side wants to build.
The Sides-Tausanovitch-Vavreck argument receives support in a new paper by the psychologists Adrian Lüders, Dino Carpentras and Michael Quayle of the University of Limerick in Ireland. The authors demonstrate not only how ingrained polarization has become, but also how attuned voters have become to signals of partisanship and how adept they now are at using cues to determine whether a stranger is a Democrat or Republican.
“Learning a single attitude (e.g., one’s standpoint toward abortion rights),” they write, “allows people to estimate an interlocutor’s partisan identity with striking accuracy. Additionally, we show that people not only use attitudes to categorize others as in-group and out-group members, but also to evaluate a person more or less favorably.”
The three conducted survey experiments testing whether Americans could determine the partisanship of people who agreed or disagreed with any one of the following eight statements:
1) Abortion should be illegal.
2) The government should take steps to make incomes more equal.
3) All unauthorized immigrants should be sent back to their home country.
4) The federal budget for welfare programs should be increased.
5) Lesbian, gay and trans couples should be allowed to legally marry.
6) The government should regulate business to protect the environment.
7) The federal government should make it more difficult to buy a gun.
8) The federal government should make a concerted effort to improve social and economic conditions for African Americans.
“Participants were able to categorize a person as Democrat or Republican based on a single attitude with remarkable accuracy (reflected by a correlation index of r = .90).”
While partisan differences over racial issues have a long history, contemporary polarization has politicized virtually everything within its reach.
A March Wall Street Journal/NORC poll at the University of Chicago found that over the 25-year period since 1998, the percentage of adults who said patriotism was “very important” to them fell to 38 percent from 70.
Much of the decline was driven by Democrats and independents, among whom 23 and 29 percent said patriotism was very important, less than half of the 59 percent of Republicans.
A similar pattern emerged regarding the decline in the percentage of adults who said religion was very important to them, which fell to 39 percent from 62 percent in 1998. Democrats fell to 27 percent, independents to 38 percent and Republicans to 53 percent.
Or take the question of nationalism.
In their 2021 paper, “The Partisan Sorting of ‘America’: How Nationalist Cleavages Shaped the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election,” Bart Bonikowski, Yuval Feinstein and Sean Bock, sociologists at N.Y.U., the University of Haifa and Harvard, argue that the United States has become increasingly divided by disagreement over conceptions of nationalism.
“Nationalist beliefs shaped respondents’ voting preferences in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” they write. “The results suggest that competing understandings of American nationhood were effectively mobilized by candidates from the two parties.”
In addition, Bonikowski, Feinstein and Bock argue, “over the past 20 years, nationalism has become sorted by party, as Republican identifiers have come to define America in more exclusionary and critical terms, and Democrats have increasingly endorsed inclusive and positive conceptions of nationhood.” These trends “suggest a potentially bleak future for U.S. politics, as nationalism becomes yet another among multiple overlapping social and cultural cleavages that serve to reinforce partisan divisions.”
Bonikowski and his co-authors contend that there are four distinct types of American nationalism.
The first, creedal nationalism, is the only version supported by voters who tend to back Democratic candidates:
Creedal nationalists favor elective criteria of national belonging, rating subjective identification with the nation and respect for American laws and institutions as very important; they are more equivocal than others about the importance of lifelong residence and language skills and view birth in the country, having American ancestry, and being Christian as not very important.
The other three types of nationalism trend right, according to Bonikowski and his colleagues.
Disengaged nationalists, “characterized by an arm’s-length relationship to the nation, which for some may verge on dissatisfaction with and perhaps even animus toward it,” are drawn to “Trump’s darkly dystopian depiction of America.”
Restrictive and ardent nationalists both apply “elective and ascriptive criteria of national belonging,” including the “importance of Christian faith.”
Restrictive and ardent nationalists differ, according to the authors, “in their degree of attachment to the nation, pride in America’s accomplishments, and evaluation of the country’s relative standing in the world.” For example, 11 percent of restrictive nationalists voice strong “pride in the way the country’s democracy works” compared with 70 percent of ardent nationalists.
These and other divisions provide William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings who studies how well governments work, the grounds from which to paint a bleak picture of American politics.
“Issues of individual and group identity — especially along the dimensions of race and gender — have moved to the center of our politics at every level of the federal system,” Galston wrote by email. “The economic axis that defined our politics from the beginning of New Deal liberalism to the end of Reagan conservatism has been displaced.”
How does that affect governing?
When the core political issues are matters of right and wrong rather than more and less, compromise becomes much more difficult, and disagreement becomes more intense. If I think we should spend X on farm programs and you think it should be 2X, neither of us thinks the other is immoral or evil. But if you think I’m murdering babies and I think you’re oppressing women, it’s hard for each of us not to characterize the other in morally negative terms.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the changing character of politics described by Galston, interest in the outcome of elections has surged.
Jon Rogowski, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, cited trends in polling data on voter interest in elections in an email:
In 2000, only 45 percent of Americans said that it really matters who wins that year’s presidential election. Since then, increasing shares of Americans say that who wins presidential elections has important consequences for addressing the major issues of the day: about 63 percent of registered voters provided this response in each of the 2004, 2008 and 2012 elections, which then increased to 74 percent in 2016 and 83 percent in 2020.
As the parties have become increasingly differentiated over the last several decades, and as presidential candidates have offered increasingly distinct political visions, it is no surprise that greater shares of Americans perceive greater stakes in which party wins the presidential election.
Where does all this leave us going into the 2024 election?
Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, provided the following answer by email: “When partisan conflict is no longer primarily about policies, or even values, but more about people’s basic worldviews, the stakes do feel higher to partisans.”
Weiler cited poll data showing that
In 2016, 35 percent of Democrats said Republicans were more immoral than Democrats and 47 percent of Republicans said Democrats were more immoral. In 2022, those numbers had jumped dramatically — 63 percent of Democrats said Republicans were more immoral, and 72 percent of Republicans said Democrats were more immoral.
In this context, Weiler continued,
It’s not that the specific issues are unimportant. Our daily political debates still revolve around them, whether D.E.I., abortion, etc. But they become secondary, in a sense, to the gut-level hatred and mistrust that now defines our politics, so that almost whatever issue one party puts in front of its voters will rouse the strongest passions. What matters now isn’t the specific objects of scorn but the intensity with which partisans are likely to feel that those targets threaten them existentially.
Perhaps Bill Galston’s assessment was not bleak enough.
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Thomas B. Edsall has been a contributor to the Times Opinion section since 2011. His column on strategic and demographic trends in American politics appears every Wednesday. He previously covered politics for The Washington Post. @edsall
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