US polarisation decades in the making

If you think US polarisation is ending soon – think again. While there is frightening evidence of current US polarisation longer term research shows just how deep-seated it is.

While it is astonishing that between 70% and 80% of Republican voters believe the recent Presidential election was rigged this is not an outlier product of the Trump years but more a reflection of steadily developing attitudes over some decades.

The George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communications (4C) has been asking questions about the worldviews of registered Americans voters for 12 years as part of its tracking of American attitudes to climate change. This has enabled them to track changing attitudes among a significant sample of enabling them to track changing attitudes across a wide range of issues and policies.

Usurprisingly they find that: “Democrats and Republicans tend to have very different cultural worldviews: Democrats tend to be more egalitarian, while Republicans tend to be more individualistic. Our data suggests that Democrats — particularly liberal Democrats — have become more egalitarian and less individualistic since 2008, whereas Republicans have remained highly individualistic.”

For instance Liberal Democrats increasingly say basic needs (food, housing, health care, education) should ideally be guaranteed by the government for everyone.

Not that this view is uncommon among all Americans. In the 2020 surveys just under half of the sample believed that in an ideal society, the government would guarantee all basic human needs (including food, housing, health care, and education) for everyone.

The divergence came when voting registration allegiance was overlaid on the national figures. 83% of liberal Democrats and 59% of moderate/conservative Democrats agreed with this statement in 2020.

In contrast slightly less than a third of liberal/moderate Republicans and one in 10 conservative Republicans supported this ideal society vision.

Significantly, from 2008 to 2020, liberal Democrats’ support for this statement increased by 21 percentage points, while moderate/conservative Democrats’ support remained essentially unchanged. On the other hand support for the statement decreased by 6 points among liberal/moderate Republicans and by 5 points among conservative Republicans.

Examining attitudes to wealth the 4C research found that Democrats increasingly say the world would be more peaceful if wealth were divided more equally among nations.

 In 2020, nearly half of registered voters said the world would be a more peaceful place if its wealth were divided more equally among nations.

72% of liberal Democrats and 66% of  moderate/conservative Democrats held this view, but only about three in ten liberal/moderate Republicans and only 16% of conservative Republicans held the view.

From 2008 to 2020, support for the statement increased by 12 percentage points among liberal Democrats and by 18 percentage points among moderate/conservative Democrats.

Amongst liberal/moderate Republicans agreement with sharing world wealth decreased by 12 percentage points from 2008 to 2020, and among conservative Republicans it remained relatively low and steady throughout.

The concept of activist government is a lightning rod for differing US groups although what activism they oppose or support depends a lot not only ideology but also the enduring question of cui bono.

Activist government supporting welfare, climate change, equality, voting rights, immigration and other similar issues are unlikely to win support from a Republican Congress. Conversely subsidies, tax breaks and deregulation which benefit the rich and industries are simply part of US capitalism

The 4C research finds that Democrats increasingly disagree that the government should spend less time trying to fix people’s problems.

In 2020 half of the total sample said that if the government spent less time trying to fix everyone’s problems, we’d all be a lot better off. In contrast Republicans were particularly likely to support this statement, including 80% of conservative Republicans and 65% of liberal/moderate Republicans.

Support was much lower among Democrats, including 37% of moderate/conservative Democrats and 22% of liberal Democrats (22%).

Support for this statement overall has decreased significantly since 2008.  This decrease, however, has largely been driven by Democrats, who have become much less likely to support this statement, with agreement falling by 21 points among both liberal Democrats and moderate/conservative Democrats.

Support among Republicans, however, did not change much over the 12-year period falling 4% among liberal/moderate Republicans and 2% for conservative Republicans.

On what is probably the fundamental fault line in US politics, and the source and indicator of a host of problems and policy failures, 69% of  registered voters say that discrimination against minorities is a major problem.

61% of liberal/moderate Republicans agree that discrimination against minorities is still a very serious problem in US society. However, in contrast, only 41% of conservative Republicans agree.

Overall, voters’ level of agreement with this statement in 2020 is similar to 2008, but has increased significantly since 2014 after an initial drop in 2010, during the early years of the Obama presidency. To some US voters the election in 2010 obviously provoked thoughts of Joseph Conrad’s the horror, the horror.

As one would expect Democrats and Republicans have very different cultural worldviews about the ideal structure of society and the role of government.

Indicating growing polarisation over the past 12 years Democrats’ have become more egalitarian and less individualistic, whereas Republicans’ worldviews have remained mostly static.

The 4C research found that: “The shift among Democrats has led to increasing support for strong government action to solve societal problems, from health care to climate change.

“Therefore, building a bipartisan consensus on climate change may be becoming more difficult, as the two parties increasingly have divergent views of the role of government in solving problems like climate change.”

Moreover, other research (PNAS October 2020) by Lion Schultz, Max Rollwage, Raymond Doland and Stephen Fleming suggests the more dogmatic Americans are the less likely they are to search out further information.

They write: “When knowledge is scarce it is adaptive to seek further information to seek more information to resolve uncertainty and obtain a more accurate worldviews.

Biases in such information-seeking behaviour can contribute to the maintenance of inaccurate views……a phenomenon linked to entrenched beliefs in political, scientific and religious discourse.”

And guess what? The dogmatic are less likely to seek out new information which makes then re-assess their stance and less likely to be uncertain about their position.

The US has not yet fallen into Reformation and Counter–Reformation levels of violence – although there are similar levels of vitriol and there is a similar air of religiosity in the disagreements which are perhaps unsurprising in the only modern developed society where religion is still overwhelmingly important.

Indeed, putting it in this religious historical context it is perhaps not too far-fetched to compare Obama with Erasmus – not least because they both wrote well.

Both set out to shape a tolerant and mutually respectful public discourse. Both ended up being lightning rods for those who seek to trash such a method of overcoming polarisation. Biden has to hope it will be better in the next four years.

The PNAS article was brought to the blog’s attention by John Spitzer.