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Wednesday
Jun062012

What Can We Make of the New Pew Poll?

A new Pew Poll, highlighted by TPM, purports to find that party identification is increasingly useful to predict respondents' cultural values, even as the polarizing effects of race, income, religiousity, and gender are have been static over the last 25 years.  Indeed, while in 1987, party identification predicted about an average amount attitude polarization, it now dominates. To put it in terms that a data analyst would appreciate: partisan identity is now explaining more of the variance in attitude than any other factor, and possibly more than most of the rest combined.

What does this mean? The big picture story is partisan re-allignment along value dimensions, itself coincident to/resulting from a number of factors.  (The causal story is complex - -you could say that this is all about the death of the democratic party in the south and its ripples, but that it seems to me is a bootstrapped explanation).  But if you drill down, the data are fascinating - and Gallup helpfully provides some great analysis tools. 

From what I can tell, on important cultural measures of interest to the CCP team, the public at large hasn't changed in material ways in since 1987.  That immediately should cause us to ask some questions about the cognitive illiberalism thesis, which, briefly, posits that motivated cognition poses a increasingly important problem for our ability to reason together liberally.  Look at the scores for questions that should matter to CCP scales, like:

-government regulation of business does more harm than good;

-womens' traditional roles;

-too far in pushing equal rights;

-corporate profits too high.

I don't notice secular trends.  Do you?  By contrast, check out the public's views on redistribution: they've cratered!  (Probably coincident with the passing of the great generation.)  

These flat lines are weird, because I think that we would have predicted increasing differences in the population over time, as individuals became better able to control the flow of information that they received; to create virtual communities (and identities) by choice; to segregate into phyles without ever leaving the home.

Here's the $1,000,000 challenge: if we'd wound the tape back to 1987, wouldn't we have predicted increasing polarization over time on the questions that formed the bases of our scales?  We certainly have said in public that our scales aren't meant to measure some fixed, biological, orientation: they are culturally and temporally contingent.  I certainly don't see how we would have predicted what actually happened, which was a wash overall for cultural polarization, and instead a reorientation of Americans into more cohesive political parties.  Two thoughts follow:

1.  Though it's often thought of as bad for politics (and our ability to get along) it's not obvious to me that partisanship is the same kind of evil that Dan so persuasively flagged in The Cognitively Illiberal State. To argue that very narrowly footed political parties are bad for civic discourse would require us to say that Britain and France and Germany and other Western European countries are marked by lower levels of civic engagement, happiness, and cohesiveness than we are, which is a tough claim to make, to say the least!  But maybe that's not right - perhaps partisan reorientation and cohesion works to reinforce identity formation in a pernicious way.

2.  Regardless of the correctness of the analysis above, I think the Project should think and write more about it's predictive story.  For instance: to the extent that we are finding intense cultural valence on global warming, was that divergence inevitable, or did it result from some factor extrinsic to our research (like strategic behavior).  Why hasn't the GM food movement produced the same public emotion as global warming.  Why was the question of corporate manager salary considered a values question in the 1930s, but isn't today? Would we have predicted these results? 

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