Behind political polarization, there’s a complex picture of partisans

Behind political polarization, there’s a complex picture of partisans
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Hidden beneath the stark partisan polarization of American politics today are sharp intraparty divisions over some of the most central issues facing the nation, according to a new analysis from the Pew Research Center.

The study assesses the public’s views on a range of issues and segments Americans into nine groups, largely divided along partisan lines. Four fall mostly within the Democratic Party and another four mostly into the Republican Party, with the final group made up of largely disengaged Americans who are less clearly aligned with either side.

The groups within each party are distinguished by their ideological positions, their demographic makeup and their level of political engagement. And the analysis reveals that the coalitions that form within parties can vary based on the issue at hand.

According to Pew, “the gulf that separates Republicans and Democrats sometimes obscures the divisions and diversity of views that exist within both partisan coalitions — and the fact that many Americans do not fit easily into either one.”

Despite the sharp partisan polarization that dominates opinions on most issues, the research reveals some similar patterns across parties. Both see lower overall engagement and partisan connection among the youngest subsets of their parties. The ideological ends of each side of the spectrum include those who are most engaged. And the internal rifts within both parties have shifted somewhat since the last Pew typology report four years ago.

Here’s a look at what unites and divides each of the two major parties in American politics.

The Republicans

The Republican Party, the Pew report finds, faces internal divides over “some principles long associated with the GOP: an affinity for businesses and corporations, support for low taxes and opposition to abortion.” And there is some division within the party over how to handle criticism of former President Donald Trump. But they’re largely in sync in their desire for a smaller government and their rejection of the idea that the country still struggles with systemic racial and gender inequality.

Pew’s analysis reveals four subsets of the Republican Party:

  • “Faith and Flag Conservatives” (about 23% of the GOP) are older, politically active and overwhelmingly Christian, as well as “intensely conservative in all realms.”
  • The “Populist Right” (about 23%) have less formal education, live more rurally and express wariness of both immigrants and big business.
  • The “Ambivalent Right” (about 18%), a younger and less-doctrinaire group, feels weaker ties to the Republican Party, but maintains conservative attitudes on race, gender and the role of government.
  • And “Committed Conservatives” (about 15%), are highly educated and politically active Republicans whose ideological principles take on a “somewhat softer edge” on issues like immigration and international relations.

Across those cohorts, there are some clear lines of agreement:

  • A rejection of concerns about racial and gender-based injustice. In all four of the Republican-affiliated typology groups, fewer than one-quarter say that a lot more needs to be done to ensure equal rights for Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Two-thirds or more in each group dismiss the idea that White Americans benefit from societal advantages that Black Americans do not. More than 6 in 10 say that the obstacles that once made it harder for women than men to get ahead are now largely gone. Most also consider “people too easily taking offense to things others say” to be a major problem in the US.
  • A preference for smaller government. Two-thirds or more in every group say that government is doing too many things best left to businesses and individuals, and most say it’s not the government’s job to protect people from themselves.
  • A focus on military strength. All four groups want to see the US work to remain the world’s sole military superpower, and about one-tenth in any of the groups think the size of the military should be reduced.

But there are defining differences:

  • Whether they believe the economic system is fair. Just 17% of Republicans in the “Populist Right” — compared with 70% or more in the other three groups — agree that most corporations make a fair and reasonable amount of profit. The “Populist Right” also stands out for its majority support on raising tax rates for high income households.
  • Where they stand on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. While two-thirds of the “Faith and Flag Conservatives” say that the legality of same-sex marriage in the US is bad for society, half or fewer of the other groups agree. And while 84% of “Faith and Flag Conservatives” say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, only 44% in the “Ambivalent Right” agree.
  • How they feel about immigration. The “Populist Right” and “Faith and Flag Conservatives” take hardline views against immigrants, including those who enter the country legally — more than 80% in both groups “say that illegal immigration is a very big national problem,” and significant shares want to see fewer immigrants legally admitted into the US.
  • How to handle Trump. Asked to rate their feelings about the former President on a 0 to 100 scale, “Faith and Flag Conservatives” give him an average score of 83, with the “Populist Right” and “Committed Conservatives” ranking him in the 70s, and the “Ambivalent Right” putting him at just 43 — barely higher than their opinion of President Joe Biden. Three-quarters or more of “Faith and Flag Conservatives” and the “Populist Right” say that the GOP should not be accepting of any criticism of Trump from elected officials, while a smaller 63% of “Committed Conservatives” and 40% of the “Ambivalent Right” say the same.

The Democrats

The Democratic Party’s supporters largely align over economic issues and on the general need for a larger role for government. Fault lines in the Democratic Party emerge around ideological divides on how far that expanded government should go, particularly around policies to combat racism, on climate and on immigration. There are also splits on military policy and perceptions of the American role in the world, as well as in some respects by race and ethnicity, age and education.

The largest of the four subsets of Democrats are:

  • “Democratic Mainstays,” (28% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents), a racially diverse, older core made up largely of self-identified Democrats. About 4 in 10 Black Democrats align with this category, the largest concentration of any racial or ethnic group within the Democratic coalition, and most in this group consider themselves moderate.
  • To the ideological left of Democratic Mainstays are “Establishment Liberals” (23%), a diverse subset of the Democratic Party holding largely liberal views.
  • A smaller, but highly active, slice of liberal Democrats make up the “Progressive Left” (12%). This younger, less diverse and more highly educated group of Democrats is more likely than others to consider themselves very liberal, to hold negative views of the Republican Party and to say that government services should be greatly expanded.
  • Finally, the “Outsider Left” make up the youngest segment of the Democratic Party, and are roughly 16% of the Party’s coalition. Besides its age, this group is marked by its dissatisfaction with government and the Democratic Party, despite holding broadly liberal ideological views.

The strongest points of agreement within the Democratic coalition are:

  • A unified view that the economy is tilted toward the powerful. More than 8 in 10 in each Democratic subgroup agrees that the economic system in the country unfairly favors the powerful. Nearly all want to see tax rates increased for large business and corporations, and there is widespread support across groups for increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.
  • An overarching belief that government needs to do more to solve problems. At least three-quarters in each subset of the Democratic Party says government should be doing more to solve problems — that peaks at 98% for the “Progressive Left.”
  • Broad agreement that a lot needs to be done to ensure equal rights across racial and ethnic lines. Roughly three-quarters or more in each of the Democratic subsets agree that there is a lot more to be done to make sure that all Americans have equal rights, and majorities across Democratic subsets say that White people benefit a great deal from advantages that Black people do not have.

And the critical dividing lines for Democrats are:

  • How much government should do to solve problems. Although Democrats broadly agree that more government action is needed, they differ on the extent of that effort. While 63% of the “Progressive Left” say government services should be greatly expanded, that drops to roughly a third in the other Democratic subsets.
  • How to address racial inequality. Democrats differ over whether achieving greater equality requires a complete rebuild of US laws and major institutions. While 71% of “Progressive Left” Democrats say a total overhaul is needed, that drops to just 29% among “Establishment Liberals.”
  • Where they stand on issues of crime and justice. There’s a nearly 40-point swing between “Democratic Mainstays” (11%) and “Progressive Left” (48%) over whether spending on policing ought to be decreased. And about three-quarters of “Democratic Mainstays” say that violent crime is a very big national problem, compared with roughly a quarter among “Progressive Left.”
  • How far government ought to go to fight climate change. While most across Democratic groups agree that climate change is a big problem, and generally say environmental regulations are worth the cost, they split over whether the US ought to move entirely to renewable energy sources. Just 42% of “Democratic Mainstays” say the US should phase out oil, coal and natural gas vs. majorities in the “Outsider Left” and “Progressive Left.”
  • How satisfied they are with their party. While a majority of “Democratic Mainstays” and “Establishment Liberals” say that the Democratic Party makes them proud, less than half of the “Progressive Left” and fewer than a quarter of the “Outsider Left” agree. Within the “Outsider Left” in particular, only about half say the Democratic Party represents them well, compared with 8 in 10 or more among other subsets.

The Pew Research Center based its typology primarily on a survey of 10,221 US adults reached through a nationally representative online panel on July 8-18, 2021, with a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points for the full sample. Data from additional surveys of some respondents were also included. Responses to the survey were used to classify the public into a set of nine groups based on their answers to 27 questions about social and political values. More details on the methodology are available here.

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