There’s more to America’s polarization than elections

Can we call ourselves the United States when we so very clearly are not?

This graphics, released today from Pew Research, is a stunning characterization of the polarization of the United States, as evidenced by the politicians we send to Washington.

Pew Research

The researchers aggregated every roll call vote back to the 1700s on the two-dimensional grid. “One dimension represents the traditional liberal-conservative spectrum; the second picks up regional issue differences, such as the split between Northern and Southern Democrats over civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s,” they write on Pew’s website today.

The regional differences have disappeared, or — more accurately — merged into all liberal or all conservative, with not much in between. From the 1970s, the overlap in voting positions began to shrink, leaving us now where their isn’t any. At all.

But there’s one nagging question. Is Congress like the rest of America?

Political scientists debate whether polarization in Congress preceded or followed polarization among the wider public, and our data (which begins in 1994) won’t resolve that. One thing is clear, though: When a polarized Congress represents a polarized public, not much gets done legislatively. Through the end of May, the current Congress had enacted 89 pieces of substantive legislation (based on the methodology we’ve employed in prior Fact Tank posts) since it opened in January 2013. A decade ago, at the equivalent point in its term, Congress had enacted almost twice as many substantive laws.

Historically, compromise has been key to getting legislation passed. But polarized senators and representatives — reluctant to compromise with the other side to start with — won’t get much pressure from the partisans back in their home states. According to our study, while 56% of Americans say they prefer politicians who are willing to compromise, in practice both across-the-board conservatives and across-the-board liberals say the end result of compromise should be that their side gets more of what it wants.

The conclusion? It doesn’t seem to matter who you send to Congress, only the party. There is no room for those who don’t have a party’s ideological purity.

But here’s the potentially scary part. We are becoming much more tribal in our non-voting ways, too.

Three-quarters of consistent conservatives say they would opt to live in a community where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away,” while 77% of consistent liberals prefer smaller houses closer to amenities. Nearly four times as many liberals as conservatives say it is important that their community has racial and ethnic diversity; about three times as many conservatives as liberals say it is important that many in the community share their religious faith.

Related: Here's who Americans don't want marrying into their families (Vox).

  • jon

    Another take on the same concept

  • Jamison S.

    That final paragraph is incredibly interesting. The fact that a political ideology would play itself out in such a practical way is fascinating. Yet, I see it in my own life. I’m more liberal, and I much prefer to be in the city with amenities in walking distance.

  • kcmarshall

    Keep in mind that those “consistent conservatives/liberals” make up 21% of the population. While that is a larger share than in the past, they are still outnumbered almost 2/1 (39%) by people with mixed political views. Only ~15% have these strongly opposite lifestyle preferences.

  • Jim Hartmann

    It’s interesting how the blue doesn’t change much as far shape and center. The red is steadily slithering off to the right.

  • jb

    WHAT’S so shocking about all this? The right has always been in favor of everyone pulling their own load. Liberals always assume the poor should be coddled by the government ie welfare paid for by the workers. There is nothing new here.

    • OK, but what you’re responding with really has nothing to do with what was presented, which has nothing to do with what liberals and what conservatives believe in.