Are Americans really as politically polarized as they seem — and everyone says?
It is certainly true that Democrats and Republicans increasingly hate and fear each other. But this animosity seems to have more to do with tribal loyalties than liberal versus conservative disagreements about policy. Our research into what Americans actually want in terms of policy shows that many hold strong political views that cannot really be characterized in terms of “right” or “left.”
The media often talks about the American political landscape as if it were a rule. On the left are the Liberal Democrats, on the right are the Conservative Republicans, and in the center are a small group of moderate independents. But political scientists like us have long argued that a rule is a poor metaphor for how Americans think about politics.
Sometimes scholars and experts will argue that views on economic issues such as taxation and income redistribution, and views on so-called social or cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, actually represent two different dimensions in American political views. Americans, they say, can hold liberal views of one dimension but conservative views on the other. So you could have a pro-choice voter who wants lower taxes, or a pro-life voter who wants the government to do more to help the poor.
But even this more refined, two-dimensional picture doesn’t reveal what Americans actually want the government to do — or not do — when it comes to policy.
First, it ignores some of the most controversial topics in American politics today, such as positive actionthe Black Lives Matter movement And attempts to eradicate “wakeness”. on college campuses.
Since 2016, when Donald Trump won the presidency at the same time fueling racial fears and opposition to Republican orthodoxy taxes And gay marriageit has become clear that what Americans think about politics cannot really be understood without knowing how they feel about racism, and what, if any, they are willing to do about it.
Recently, some political scientists have argued that views on racial issues a third “dimension” in American politics. But there are other problems with treating political views primarily as a series of “dimensions.” For example, even a “3D” view does not allow Americans with conservative economic views to tend to also have conservative racial views, while Americans with liberal economic views are deeply divided on issues related to race.
A new view of American politics
In our new article in Sociological Researchwe analyzed public opinion data from 2004 to 2020 to get a more nuanced picture of American political attitudes. Our goal was to better understand what Americans really think about politics, including policies related to race and racism.
Using a new analytical method that doesn’t force us to think in terms of dimensions at all, we found that Americans can be broadly divided into five different groups over the past two decades.
In most years, just under half of all Americans consistently held liberal or conservative views on policies related to economics, morality, and race, thus falling into one of two groups.
“Consistent conservatives” tend to believe that the free market should be given free rein in the economy, are generally anti-abortion, tend to say they support “traditional family ties” and oppose most attempts by the government to address racial inequalities. These Americans identify almost exclusively as Republicans.
“Consistent liberals” strongly support government intervention in the economy, generally support abortion rights and pro-gay marriage, and believe the government has a responsibility to address discrimination against black Americans. They usually identify as Democrats.
But the majority of Americans, who do not fall into either of these two groups, are not necessarily “moderate,” as they are often characterized. Many have strong opinions on certain issues, but cannot be pigeonholed as left or right in general.
Instead, we find that these Americans can be classified as one of three groups, whose size and relationship to the two major parties changes from one election cycle to the next:
“Racial Justice Communitarians” have liberal views on economic issues such as taxation and redistribution and moderate or conservative views on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. They also strongly believe that government has a responsibility to address racial discrimination. This group likely includes many of the black evangelicals who strongly supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaign but were also deeply uncomfortable with his expression of support for gay marriage in 2012.
“Nativist Communitarians” also hold liberal views on economics and conservative views on moral issues, but they are extremely conservative on race and immigration, even more than consistent conservatives in some cases. Photo, for example those voters in 2016 who were drawn to both Bernie Sanders’ economic populism and Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants.
‘Libertarians’, who we see becoming much more prominent after the tea party protests of 2010, are conservative on economic issues, liberal on social issues and have mixed but generally conservative views on racial issues. Think about this Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who think the government shouldn’t tell them how to run their businesses — or tell gay couples they can’t get married.
Five groups – but only two parties
These three groups of Americans are struggling to join one of the two major parties in the US
In every year we looked, Racial Justice Communitarians — which includes the largest percentage of nonwhite Americans — were the most likely to identify as Democrats. But in some years, up to 40% still considered themselves Republicans or Independents.
Nativist communitarians and libertarians are even harder to pin down. During the Obama years, they were actually slightly more inclined to be Democrats than Republicans. But since Trump’s rise to power in 2016, both groups are now slightly more likely to identify as Republicans, even though large percentages of each group describe themselves as independents or Democrats.
Seeing Americans as divided into these five groups—as opposed to polarized between left and right—shows that both political parties compete for coalitions of voters with different combinations of views.
Many racial justice communitarians disagree with the Democratic Party on cultural and social issues. But without their votes, the party is unlikely to win a national election. And unless they are prepared to give a strong push to promoting “racial justice,” the Republican Party’s national electoral prospects likely hinge on attracting significant support from either the economically liberal nativist communitarians or the socially liberal libertarians.
But perhaps most importantly, these five groups show just how diverse Americans’ political views really are. Just because American democracy is a two-party system doesn’t mean there are only two types of American voters.