PRRI Speaks with Alan Abramowitz about America’s Growing Political and Cultural Polarization

from publicreligion.org

[10.01.2014]

Last week, political analyst and Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz joined a panel of experts to discuss the findings of PRRI’s latest American Values Survey, “Economic Insecurity, Rising Inequality, and Doubts about the Future.” Although our findings were unequivocally gloomy—a majority of the public report being in only fair (37%) or poor financial shape (20%)—Dr. Abramowitz’s evaluation focused more on the growing divide between Democrats and Republicans, black and white Americans, and the devout and secular. We spoke with Dr. Abramowitz after the panel to get more insight.

1001ALAN PRRI Speaks with Alan Abramowitz about Americas Growing Political and Cultural Polarization

During your AVS panel presentation, you mentioned a growing dislike—and even contempt—for Americans who support the opposing party, i.e. Republicans hating Democrats and vice versa. Why do you think that’s the case?

This is a reflection of the growing polarization of the American electorate overall. Republicans and Democrats are increasingly on opposite sides of so many different issues, including heavily disputed cultural issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and religion’s role in society. Taking these issues at hand, there’s an increasing tendency to see the other party not just as wrong, but also as immoral. This viewpoint is applicable not just to party leaders, but to its supporters as well.

I wouldn’t say that this is the majority viewpoint, but I think it’s much more prevalent now. So it’s no longer just a growing divergence between parties, it’s a growing perception that the type of people that support the other party are not “like us” and  therefore are not good people.

When it comes to party affiliation, how does religion come into play? And as more and more people become unaffiliated, where do you think they’ll go?

Traditionally, white Protestants have widely sided with Republicans, while Catholics are overwhelmingly Democratic. But this divide is no longer very salient. Instead, there’s a split in religiosity, or how religious you are and whether you hold traditional religious beliefs or not.

On one side, you have the very religiously devout. They tend to be more politically conservative, especially with cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, and therefore tend to be overwhelmingly Republican. On the other side, you have a more secular group, who are either less devout or have left organized religion entirely. Generally, this group tends to have more liberal opinions on the same cultural issues, and is therefore more Democratic. This secular group also makes up a larger share of young people.

Democrats and Republicans aren’t just dividing by religion—they’re dividing by race. You mentioned in your panel presentation that this racial divide is coming from the bottom up.

America is becoming more diverse overall, thanks to a growing Hispanic and Asian American population, increasing immigration, differential birth rates, etc. We know from Census data that this trend will definitely continue. This is politically significant because non-whites are drawn disproportionately to one party: the Democratic Party. Over time, the Democratic electoral base has shifted from one that was overwhelmingly white 40 or 50 years ago to one that is evenly divided between whites and non-whites. And as we look forward, the Democratic Party will almost certainly be a majority minority party in the very near future.

Now compare that to the Republican Party, which has remained overwhelmingly white. Republicans just aren’t attracting many of these younger non-white voters who are entering the electorate.

What are you left with? A growing divide between the racial make-up of the two party coalitions that is in turn pulling the parties apart on a whole range of other issues.

One of the more interesting data points in AVS 2014 explores what news source Americans believe to be the most trustworthy. You mentioned this briefly in your presentation. Can you talk more about this?

As we’ve seen with racial lines, there’s a divide on where people are getting their information. In terms of broadcast television, Fox News is by far the most popular news source for Republicans, outweighing all other broadcast networks combined. Only a small minority of Democrats considers Fox News to be the most trustworthy news source. Instead, Democrats are largely split among other broadcast networks: CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, and PBS. Another interesting development here is that Democrats, especially young Democrats, regard two comedy programs as trustworthy news sources: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

This data is significant because in the past, regardless of party, everyone pretty much saw the same news broadcast and got the same information from the media. Today, people have almost unlimited information options via television, radio, the Internet, etc. But we tend to seek out information that reinforces the things that we already believe. This pulls us apart even further.

You’re known for your election predications. What are you thoughts for November’s midterm elections?

My sense is that Republicans will maintain the majority in the House of Representatives. The way the districts are structured right now, it would be very difficult for the Democrats to win the majority of the districts, even if they win the majority of the vote. The problem Democrats have in the House of Representatives, as in the state legislatures, is that Democratic voters tend to be geographically concentrated in metro areas, while Republican voters are more widely distributed. This gives Republicans a significant edge. I predict we’ll see a very small swing in the House.

The Senate is where the real battle is this year. Democrats have a 55/45 majority if you include a couple of the independents that caucus with the Democrats. Republicans need to pick up six seats—which is very possible—to take over. The Senators’ seats that happen to be up this year were elected in 2008, a very good Democratic year. What we have is a bunch of Democrats who are defending seats—or in a few cases retiring from seats—that are in normally Republican states, like Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, South Dakota, and Alaska. It’s going to be very difficult for Democrats to hold on to those seats. Republicans have lots of pick-up opportunities.

Right now, it’s looking like it’s very close to a toss-up. If we have a 50-50 split, then Joe Biden will have some useful work to do in the next two years to break those Senate ties.

Dr. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University. He is the author or coauthor of five books, including “The Polarized Public: Why American Government is so Dysfunctional.” Dr. Abramowitz’s election forecast has correctly and precisely predicted the popular vote winner within two percentage points or less in every U.S. presidential election since 1988.

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