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

Pew finds differences aren’t growing across lines of race, class, gender, but big time across lines of party.

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.

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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.

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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