Patrick Ruffini: The shape of polarization in America
Read the full analysis by Patrick Ruffini in The Intersection on Substack
We’re not as badly divided as we think, thanks to nonwhite voters
It is cliché by now to say that the country is polarized. Despite the predictable nature of the polarization discourse, there’s strong empirical evidence for the underlying trend.
while rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans used to agree on a lot, they now hardly agree on anything. When we think of a time that politics was less ideologically polarized, we think of a period like midcentury America, when you had a lot of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. But the reality is that politics was a lot like this at the turn of the millennium. In 2000, liberals only barely outnumbered conservatives in the Democratic coalition — 27 to 24 percent. Today, the liberal-to-conservative ratio among Democrats is more than three-to-one.
The polarization story is often told in terms of the twin extinctions of the conservative white Southern Democrats and the liberal Northeastern Republicans. This is mostly in a figurative sense, since most didn’t literally die off—they just switched parties. Both were opposite manifestations of the same trend: re-sorting themselves into the party with the people who thought mostly like they did on social issues.
The polarization story is well-known and serves as an all-purpose explanation for everything that’s gone wrong in politics today. But it hasn’t touched every voter in the same way. A large number of voters are not polarized in the way highlighted by the Pew chart earlier, showing how far apart partisans now are in their policy beliefs. Only a specific subset of the population has become hyper-polarized in this way: white voters—and especially those with a college degree.
This chart prepared by Victor Lue at Echelon Insights using data from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study paints a stark picture:
Different groups are polarized in different ways
Different groups are polarized in different ways, and by this I mean that while white college graduates are extremely polarized in their views, Black and Hispanic voters are hardly polarized at all, holding largely moderate positions on policy that don’t shift dramatically as a result of their partisanship. Whites with college degrees are outliers in the levels of polarization, with partisans in this group tending to cluster at polarized extremes on policy.
Here, we’re measuring policy views on a granular 0-100 scale based on how people answered more than 50 different policy questions on the 2020 CES. A score of 100 means that one gave the most conservative possible answer on all questions, and a score of zero would mean the same thing for the most liberal possible answer. The index itself was calibrated to reflect a rough 50-50 balance between right- and left-leaning voters, reflecting the reality of a closely divided politics. The original questions selected by the academic team behind the CES tended to yield more liberal-leaning responses. In spite of that, the CES is a very good survey for this kind of analysis, with 60,000 interviews that allow for robust subgroup analysis.
Where is the non-ideological middle ground?
Another way to boil this down is to bucket people into different ideological camps based on a 75-percent cutoff for ideological consistency. So, giving the conservative or liberal answer more than 75 percent of the time places you in each of those camps. Otherwise, you’re in a non-ideological middle ground. The 75 percent cutoff is an important one. Above we find Assad-like margins for Donald Trump or Joe Biden in 2020 of more than 98 percent. If you’re above this threshold, you’re not persuadable in the slightest. In the middle, your vote is basically up-for-grabs, progressing from one candidate to other in sliding scale fashion according to your policy views.
In each group but for one, solid majorities are in the non-ideological middle: 83 percent of Black voters, 77 percent of Hispanic voters, 69 percent of Asian-American voters, 58 percent of white non-college voters, and 56 percent of Native and other voters. And here again, one of these groups is not like the other: just 38 percent of white college graduates are in the middle, with large groups of extremely polarized liberals and conservatives. White college graduates also stand out in their representation of polarized liberals, with a concentration of them that’s nearly double that of any other group. And in the ranks of polarized liberals, there’s a notable absence of voters of color. Within a group of voters who agree with liberal positions more than 90 percent of the time, white voters with college degrees outnumber Black voters by 20-to-1, 60 to 3 percent.