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Thought-provoking study of ‘values’ differences across party lines

On questions of “values,” Americans (and one supposes all other people on the planet), have always somewhat divided across lines of race, gender, class, education level and religiosity. No big surprise there.

Since 1987, the Pew Research Center — one of the preeminent polling operations — has been taking a survey about “values” across 15 areas, from optimism to their belief in the ability of government to address societal problems, although many of the values areas seem to also translate into positions on permanent political issues. And, yesterday, they were out with the latest version, embedded with comparison to the previous surveys going back 15 years.

The single overwhelming finding is that during that whole period, values difference across all of those lines have endured but remained fairly steady. On average, differences across races have shrunk slightly, differences across gender have grown slightly but it’s all margin-of-error stuff.

Only one category has grown very substantially, and the widening gap has taken off over the past 10 years. It’s the divide across party lines.

For example, the way Pew scores it, the average “values” gap between races has shrunk from 14 points to 12, while the difference between men and women has grown from four points to six. But the average difference between Democrats and Republicans has almost doubled from 10 points in 1987 to 18 points now.

This graphic, from Pew’s website, summarizes the main finding:

Partisan Gap Grows, Other Divides Stable

One thing you’ll notice is that the widening partisan gap doesn’t go back to 1987, but takes off from 2002 to the present.

The current gaps across party lines are largest on questions about the social safety net, the environment and labor unions, and much smaller in other areas. Here’s that graphic from Pew’s website:

Where Partisan Divisions are Largest

The widening of the gap since 1987 differs depending on the value measured. For example, the size of the gap has soared on questions that measure religiosity and environmental issues, which is a reminder that the current stereotypes of the two parties on those issues is a fairly recent development. Here’s a graphic that captures that:

How Partisan Divides Have Grown

On some level, this is not really all that surprising to anyone who follows politics. But because of Pew’s credibility and because it has been asking the same questions over many years, its finding has credibility. Another question is how alarming one should find it and the degree to which it explains the current gridlock in Congress.

It wasn’t that long ago that both major U.S. political parties were big-tent organizations. The most liberal Republicans were way to the left of the most conservative Democrats. Major legislation routinely passed with plenty of members of both parties voting on both sides. That’s almost over. But you could say this is mostly because the parties have become more ideologically coherent. I have trouble believing that coherence is a bad thing. The more difficult question is whether (and really, there’s not much doubt that this is so) coherence has intensified to the point that Republicans will vote against proposals not just because they disagree but because they worry about letting Democrats get credit for any accomplishment that might strengthen the Dems going into the next election.

Anyway, Pew’s long summary is loaded with food for serious thought. If you want it, the full report and full questionnaire are also available. And lastly, Pew thoughtfully provided an embedable slide show of graphics capturing the major findings. Click on the image below if you want to page through those graphics:

American Values Survey

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Rich Crose on 06/05/2012 - 11:01 am.

    Blame it on the Internet

    Google conspiracy theories and you’ll find thousands of sites that agree with you. Google “Perverts” and you’ll find ten thousand perverts to talk to. We unfriend people who disagree with our views. We frequent web sites that agree with our views. In 1987, if you were a child molester, you were a monster. In 2012, you can find a web site that supports and even encourages you.

    The internet splinters our social fabric into individual threads not a common blanket. Two people living side by side can have completely opposite political views yet only talk about how green their lawn looks, how Weber makes a better barbeque and who’s going to win American Idol. They retreat to their basement office at night and write vitriolic comments to anyone who disagrees with them and feel empowered.

    Sometimes the worst results occur with the best intentions. “Do no evil” has brought the Devil.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/05/2012 - 11:07 am.

    Curve fitting

    Actually, if you plotted a best fit curve to the Pew data in your graph, I think that you’d see a steadily accelerating rate of increase in the partisan gap, which make your point even more strongly.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/05/2012 - 11:50 am.

    Give an example

    “Republicans will vote against proposals not just because they disagree but because they worry about letting Democrats get credit for any accomplishment that might strengthen the Dems going into the next election.”

    I’d be curious to hear an example of something republicans agree with that they voted against because they “feared it would work.”

    Mandating health insurance? Nope.
    Ending the Bush tax cuts? Nope.
    Supporting the crony capitalism of spending billions of dollars with Obama’s friends and supporters in the green industry? Nope.
    Vetoing the Keystone pipeline? Nope.

    I can’t imagine what it would be. We disagree with everything they propose. More importantly, so do the American people.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/05/2012 - 03:31 pm.

      ….We disagree with everything they propose. More importantly, so do the American people….

      This pathetic, but often repeated phrase encapsulates the “divide”. It neatly ignores that approximately 50% of American citizens will vote for Obama and approximately 50% will vote for Romney.

      It places the almost 50% who will not support the Republican candidate as not part of the “American people”.

      Who really values democracy when statements like this are so easy to make?

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 06/05/2012 - 03:57 pm.

        And I also resent it . . . .

        when people like Boehner get up and make sweeping pronouncements on behalf of “the American people”. I find myself shouting at the TV “Hey you! You don’t speak for ME!”

        I get so sick of the hubris of Republicans when they presume to speak on my behalf.

    • Submitted by Matthew Levitt on 06/06/2012 - 12:55 pm.

      Perfect example

      Is Dennis actually.

      But the insurance mandate was a conservative idea long before it was a liberal one. I forget, Dennis, which governor signed into law mandating health insurance?

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/06/2012 - 02:24 pm.

        Just because some republican

        proposed it several years ago doesn’t make it a “conservative idea.” If it was a “conservative idea” republican politicians would be taking credit for it and wouldn’t have spent the past 8 months denying they had anything to do with it in order to pass muster with the conservative base.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/06/2012 - 03:01 pm.

          Great comic chops, Mr. Tester!

          The insurance mandate was proposed by the Heritage Foundation, the source of many Republican public policy ideas over the years. It was proposed in Congress as an alternative to the Clinton health plan, and is virtually identical to the plan put in place by a certain former Governor of Massachusetts.

          “If it was a “conservative idea” republican politicians would be taking credit for it and wouldn’t have spent the past 8 months denying they had anything to do with it in order to pass muster with the conservative base.” The funniest thing I’ve read all year. Republican politicians would deny knowing their own mothers if The Base demanded it.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/06/2012 - 03:15 pm.


      Mandating health insurance? No matter what you want to believe, the Republicans thought of this one first.
      Ending the Bush tax cuts? You mean, letting them expire as called for by the law putting them in place (passed by Republicans, I hear)?
      Supporting the crony capitalism, etc.? I’ll see your Solyndra, and raise you a Halliburton and a Goldman Sachs (with their BFF Henry Paulson).
      Keystone? Irreparable environmental damage in exchange for no effect on oil prices: an utterly fruitless gesture in service of nothing more than profits for a few wealthy people. Yes, a true Republican value (hey, does that count as “crony capitalism”? Better check with the people who told you that was the term to keep repeating this year).

    • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/06/2012 - 03:19 pm.

      You haven’t heard of the Senate apparently

      Only after Obama took office did senators start filibustering bills and appointments they subsequently voted for. You ask for an example of positions, and you got your first example wrong. The health insurance mandate is a GOP idea, promoted by them until Obama started working on health insurance and accepted the mandate. Only then did the GOP turn against it. Likewise cap and trade to reduce pollution was a GOP idea, which they used to reduce acid rain pollutants, and they were for it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, until Obama took office.

      The idea that the party of Enron and the oil industry would attack anyone else for crony capitalism is a ludicrous as what you claim are facts about green industries.

  4. Submitted by Nathan Roisen on 06/05/2012 - 12:51 pm.

    Interesting article. I am

    Interesting article.

    I am of the opinion that there are several interrelated causes to the steadily increasing partisan gap that have enabled a kind of perfect storm to form. I don’t have time to go into all of them but I strongly disagree that it is the fault of any one person, group of people, or thing – be it George W. Bush, big-government Democrats, or the Internet.

    It is also possible that, once unleashed, partisanship-above-all-else is an all-consuming beast whose own inertia continuously ratchets itself to ever-more-shrill heights, to the detriment of all else. Side A does something, Side B responds in kind, forcing Side A into responding with a little more vitriol, and so on until both sides have thoroughly lost their grounding.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/05/2012 - 01:12 pm.

    Two comments:1) It’s hard to

    Two comments:

    1) It’s hard to imagine the “partisan divide” decreased during the Clinton era, as the data appears to show.

    2) The “Rush Limbaugh” /”Fox News” effect cannot be underestimated. 1986 for the beginning of the Limbaugh show and 1996 for Fox. Those coincide neatly with the upswings of the “divide”–the mainstream, daylight attack on “enemies of America”.

  6. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 06/05/2012 - 01:32 pm.

    Correlation is not causation, but…

    I can’t help noting that Fox News became the number one news source in 2002.

  7. Submitted by Victoria Wilson on 06/05/2012 - 05:09 pm.

    party identification

    If you look at the complete report, and scroll down to the chart on trend in party affiliation, you can see that in 2001 the about 30% of the population identified themselves as republican, 30% as independents and 33% as democrats. Today the report says 38% identify themselves as independent and 24% as republican with 32% classifying themselves as democrats. It seems clear that the moderates have left both parties. Hence the gap in ‘values’ (not sure how this word is appropriate) is due to a reclassification of the population by party affiliation instead of an increasing divide in social-political philosophy amongst our citizenry.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/06/2012 - 09:48 am.

    Regan’s “equal time” ploy.

    Actually, you can see this partisan trend begin to increase along with Reagan’s kibosh of the equal time doctrine, and Limbough and Foxes subsequent exploitation the lack of accountability. Networks had been required to provide equal time free of charge to victims of shoddy reporting or character attacks by on-air personalities according to the equal time doctrine. Reagan ended the practice with a stroke of a pen and ever since it’s been impossible to hold broadcasters accountable for misinformation and propaganda masquerading as news.

    Congress could easily reinstate equal time, but democrats have steadfastly refused to do so. Yet another example of liberals choosing to do nothing instead of taking action.

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