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By Jeremy C. Pope

When discussing political polarization it is always a good idea to get clear about what we mean by the term “polarization.” The broad term can mean different things. One crucial dimension is the difference between elites and the mass public. Polarization in Congress and national politics is deep, making compromise very difficult. Polarization among the public however, is another matter entirely.

To truly be polarized the public needs to be very ideologically consistent: Democrats need to unitedly believe one thing, and Republicans need to unitedly oppose them. That word, “united,” can really be the sticking point. How unified do the parties need to be? Morris Fiorina (who, with myself and Sam Abrams) wrote the book on these so-called “Culture Wars,” likes to point to abortion as an example of just how little unity mass parties really have. Take the 2008 American National Election Study (the highest quality political poll available). What percentage of “Strong Partisans” (poll respondents who go further than declaring allegiance to a party by saying they are “strong” members of that party) actually take positions seemingly at odds with their party? 28 percent of Strong Democrats believe abortion should either never be permitted or should be permitted only in the case of rape, incest or if a woman’s life is in danger. Conversely, 24 percent of Strong Republicans believe abortion is always a personal choice or should be available for a clear need. If we look at the rest of the Democrats and Republicans, the figures are much higher: 41 and 60 percent, respectively. When so many partisans take divergent positions from the party norm we should obviously be cautious about making any strong claims about partisan unity or public polarization.

Abortion is far from the only example. An exhaustive treatment is beyond this memo, but John Sides has demonstrated that even if we only look at Republican primary voters, they basically support current levels of spending in most areas: social security, highways, education, aid to the poor and more. He writes, “[m]ajorities of GOP primary voters were willing to cut only four things: unemployment benefits, spending on housing, spending on the environment, and foreign aid” (collectively a trivial amount of public spending).

The implication of the public opinion data is unambiguous: we cannot blame Washington dysfunction on some deep well of public opinion that is driving polarization in Congress and national politics. As of this writing (day one of the “sequester”), John Boehner leads a Republican Party toward brinksmanship in order to pass policies not all that popular with his own party’s primary voters. It is essential to remember that voters may be willing to support a party, but that fact alone hardly means they think like that party’s leadership. The responsibility for polarized policies (and a similar, if not as extreme, story can be told about Democrats) lies with elected officials and the party leadership. It is not a consequence of a polarized public crying out for extreme policies. Political compromise is not difficult because the public is divided into two polarized camps. It is difficult because leaders and partisan activists take extreme positions far beyond what most voters really want.

Note: This is a corrected version as of March 11 to rectify a mistake in an earlier version with the weighting of the ANES data.

Jeremy C. Pope is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

We asked academic experts, political scientists, historians, pollsters and policy analysts to contribute to an expert forum on this subject. In several days, we will contribute more public opinion data to the forum. The opinions reflect some differences in the academic community about how much and in what ways America is divided.

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