WASHINGTON – A new study on political polarization in the United States, conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, uses large sample sizes, impressive graphics — and lousy judgment.
I have full confidence in the evidence Pew presents. It finds that the number of people with consistently liberal or consistently conservative views on policy has increased, for example, and that ideology and party affiliation are more closely correlated than they used to be.
The trouble with the study is that it can’t stop slathering on pejorative descriptions that aren’t quite right.
One of Pew’s main graphs illustrating “partisan animosity” is titled “Beyond Dislike,” and it finds that 36 percent of Republicans think the Democratic Party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being,” while 27 percent of Democrats think the same of Republican policies.
Confession time: I’m one of those people who think the Democratic Party’s policies threaten the nation’s well-being (and at least once a week I think the Republican Party’s policies do, too).
That belief makes me unlikely to vote for Democrats. It doesn’t mean that I hate all or any Democrats, or that I can’t treat them with civility, respect and even affection — in short, it doesn’t mean that I bear “animosity” toward them. I think they are, as the question puts it, “misguided,” not malevolent.
The section of the report on how polarization is affecting personal life is similarly overstated. It shows that in choosing neighborhoods, conservatives prefer more space between houses, while liberals value walkability. But it doesn’t provide context.
How much of what’s driving this is that people with two or more kids want big yards, and that these days those people are disproportionately conservatives? If the answer is “a lot,” how much has the underlying correlation between family orientation and neighborhood preference changed over time?
The same problem lies beneath one of the report’s attention-grabbing findings. Thirty percent of consistent conservatives would be “unhappy” if an immediate family member married a Democrat; the comparable percentage for consistent liberals is 23.
Perhaps some of them do have an intense dislike for people with different views on climate change, say, or hate the prospect of arguing about it at Thanksgiving. But maybe for some people it’s a proxy for other characteristics, such as religiosity — characteristics that are perfectly rational to consider when it comes to marital decisions and have a well-known correlation with party affiliation.
I don’t doubt that in important respects Americans are more politically polarized these days than they were in, say, 1954. And Pew’s data is interesting, but its interpretation is overwrought. If we want to improve the tone of our politics, one small step would be to stop projecting hate where it may not exist.
Ramesh Ponnuru (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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