On Polarization, Extremism, and Sorting

Here at StC we spend a lot of time talking about political polarization, and a reader asked us to define what the heck that meant, and even challenged us on whether Americans were becoming more polarized at all.

They shared a thought-provoking pair of articles: one claimed that Americans were not becoming more polarized (defining this as “moving further away from the center”), but instead were simply becoming better sorted (defining this as being more consistently liberal or more consistently conservative).

This is all happening amid an unbroken trend of congressional Republicans and Democrats voting “the party line” more often, and voting with people across the aisle far less often. The graphic below shows how “close” different representatives are in their voting habits--that is, their tendency to vote together or not.

Over time, we see those groups voting much more consistently by voting “blocs,” with members not only voting more consistently with each other, but less consistently with the other side.

This may reflect American “sorting,” where we agree with people of the same “color” almost all the time and people of the other “color” more rarely. But we’re not, for example, turning into fascists and communists--just more solidly partisan conservatives and liberals.

A good example of how we’re not actually becoming particularly “extreme” is on abortion--groups on average want to see abortion happen some of the time, but not all of the time. This has stayed surprisingly consistent.

The Atlantic answers this question by saying that this sorting is indeed a form of polarization, and a big problem. It argues, as we do, that Americans agreeing with their “tribe” consistently is probably driving Republicans and Democrats to vote with their own “tribes” consistently. (If you’re curious about what’s driving Americans to become more consistently “tribal,” stay tuned for our book Wedged.)

Whether we’re more extreme or simply better sorted does matter--extremist parties mean extremists get elected, and they pass extreme laws. It’s a good thing that we’re not becoming extremists.

But it’s still a bad thing that we’re becoming partisan. It means that we’re not thinking freely and thoroughly about what we believe: we’re following our tribes with increasing consistency. It means we focus on partisan identifiers, rather than identity-neutral problem-solving.

Why bring this up? In short: we all need to think about just how well-sorted we are. How quick are we to make a decision on a new political issues in front of us based on what those in our tribe thinks? How likely are we to listen to someone based on what party identifier they provide? And what, in all, does that mean for our ability to understand and the issues that face the country?


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.