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Jan Hillard, A Sunday read: Who are we politically — and can we find common ground? Take a quiz

Today, more than ever, we get daily reminders that as a people, we are more and more politically polarized. These reminders foster an “us vs them” mentality where finding common ground seems impossible. Media outlets and legislators proliferating false information reinforce the belief that an insurmountable gulf grows between Republicans and Democrats. If we are indeed irreparably polarized, compromise becomes obsolete and we lose the essential ingredient for the survival of democracy. Before assuming that our beliefs and opinions are in fact severely polarized into Republican and Democrat, it makes sense to

validate this assumption. Labeling people as Republican or Democrat or Conservative or Liberal appeals to our desire to simplify what is in fact a complicated picture and misses the more nuanced reality of public opinion. And while surveys confirm that most Americans (70-80%) report at least leaning to one party or the other, when asked what their party stands for, they are often at a loss. Furthermore, the 20-30% who favor the label “Independent” are inconsistent in their issue positions or revert to sayings such as “I always vote for the person not the party.” For many years researchers have sought a more accurate characterization of the American public, one rooted in empirical studies and proven methods of analysis.

Last November the Pew Research Center released a new study titled, “Beyond Red vs. Blue.” The study is based on a national random survey of 10,221 adults conducted between July 8-18, 2021. To date, it is the largest survey conducted by the Pew Center. For this study, the responses to 24 questions related to partisanship and issues were analyzed using a data reduction technique called “cluster analysis.” The cluster analysis revealed 4 distinct Democratic groups, 4 Republican groups and 1 group whose political views and behavior are too inconsistent to categorize. This group termed the Stressed Sideliners fortunately make up only 15% of adults. Discovering unique categories that describe the other 85% of the adult population represents a significant step forward in understanding who we are, moving us beyond generalized, and often confusing party labels. The following summarizes the groups Pew discovered, each group’s core beliefs, and the characteristics of people within each group.

Take the Pew Political Typology Quiz

Go to: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/quiz/political-typology/

The analysis conducted by the Pew Center finds 4 Republican and 4 Democratic groups.

• Those who identify themselves as Republicans fall into 4 groups: Faith and Flag Conservatives, Committed Conservatives, Populist Right, and Ambivalent Right. Republicans are almost evenly divided across the 4 groups.

• Those that identify as Democrats cluster into 4 groups labeled Progressive Left, Establishment Liberals, Democratic Mainstays, and the Outsider Left. The size of each group across the general public, as well as within each party, is presented below. Interestingly, all 8 groups are evenly represented across the general population and within their party.

From: Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology, Pew Research Center, November 2021

Before examining the partisan groups more closely, the Pew researchers remind us of the major, long-standing issues that divide us. These include views on the current state of racial injustice, questions on the size and scope of government, including government’s role in the economy and in individual’s lives, and in social justice issues. Looking at the broad brush strokes, positions on these issues have and likely will to continue to divide Republicans and Democrats. The intra-divisions within each party typically relate to how best to achieve agreed upon policies, at what pace, and at what funding level.

The Republican Groups

Those who identify with the Republican party fit into 4 groups. And while there are areas of agreement across all 4 groups, there are significant differences across them as well. It is these differences that often challenge Republican hegemony and governance. The Pew researchers also note 2 Republican groups that are the least conservative: “Populist Right” and “Ambivalent Right” are at times associated with issue positions and candidate evaluations typical of Democratic groups. Likewise, this is true for the least liberal groups, who may hold views closer to their Republican counterparts.

The Pew researchers summarize the views and demographic characteristics of the 4 Republican groups in the accompanying table. The most overarching views across the groups include opinions on limiting the size and scope of government and a rejection of the view that racial issues need more attention. This two-prong preference of the Republican party represents an orthodoxy seen in Republican campaigns and governing. Republican groups show more diversity of opinion around both illegal and legal immigration, unable to agree on what to do with illegals, and how many immigrants to allow into the country. Economic inequality and taxation are also areas of disagreement. Criticism of the fairness of taxation and economic opportunity is heard from the group characterized as the Populist Right. This group of Republican identifiers has the least education and resides primarily in rural areas.

All the Republican groups, other than the Ambivalent Right, strongly support Trump and voted for him in 2016. The three groups that supported Trump also agree that the 2020 election was stolen and that Trump should run again or at least stay as the figurehead of the Republican party. Here again the Ambivalent Right who make up 18% of those who identify with the Republican Party are noticeably different. They say they don’t want Trump to run again, or even stay in the Republican party. They go further expressing the opinion that they are “uncomfortable” these days being a Republican.

Across the 4 groups the Flag and Faith Conservatives are the most monolithic in their staunch conservative beliefs with 88% describing themselves as conservative. They view political issues through the lens of Christian religion. This group is white, revere Trump, seek to protect their freedoms, and oppose anything that erodes their American way of life, including racial equality. Committed Conservatives make up only 15% of the Republican identifiers. They are historically loyal to the Republican party, pro-business, and favor smaller government, much like Reagan. They do however almost uniformly support Trump. The Populist Right group holds views that may seem closer to Democrats. This includes the belief that the economic system neglects the middle class, including the inequality of the tax system. Those who fit into this category overwhelmingly voted for Trump (81%). The group that is least tethered to the Republican party is the Ambivalent Right. Like other core Republicans, they favor smaller government, yet show moderation around issues of racial inequality, immigration, abortion and gay rights. Most in this group (65%) prefer Trump not remain in politics.

The clearest path to a cohesive Republican coalition is to emphasize the core conservative values of small government, valuing the private sector, and the general belief that individuals are responsible for their own success, rather than reliance on government handouts. Finally, and perhaps most agreed upon and enduring, is the view that the country has done enough for Blacks and women. Unfortunately, this sentiment for some Republicans gives way to much more troubling racial views. More recently, unwavering support for Trump and the “Big Lie” is also a common thread across the Republican groups.

The Democratic Groups

As they found with Republicans, The Pew researchers find that not all Democrats hold the same views. In spite of this, it appears that the Democratic groups are held together with several key issues. These include preferring a strong role for government in society and the economy and supporting the working and middle class through tax policies and social programs. The Democratic groups are united around addressing racial and gender inequality. They differ on the issues of immigration and criminal justice reform. Pew presents a snapshot of the beliefs and characteristics of the 4 Democratic groups in the accompanying graphic.

The most liberal group within the Democratic Party is termed the Progressive Left. This group makes up only 12% of all Democrats. It may seem larger as it is the perennial target of Republican candidates and officials. Individuals in this group are very politically active and turn out to vote in high levels. 68% of those in this category are White, non-Hispanic, and have a large number of minority groups. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders voters are well represented in this group. The Establishment Liberals represent a quarter of all Democratic identifiers (23%). And while they hold liberal positions almost across the board, they typically favor measured approaches to policies and value compromise over ideological rigidity. Occasionally, their views on how to achieve political goals, match those characterized as the “Ambivalent Right” providing at least basic ingredients for coalition building. The largest group among all Democratic identifiers are termed the Democratic Mainstays. They constitute 28% of all Democrats. They are more likely to call themselves moderate than other Democratic groups. 40% of Black Democrats are described by this category. While members of this group hold liberal positions on the economy, as well as racial injustice, they hold mixed views on how to approach immigration. Finally, the Outsider Left represents 16% of all Democrats. They are younger, well-educated, and the least politically active. While not as liberal across the board as their counterparts in the “Progressive Left” group, they do have strong liberal positions on issues of racial and gender equality. They often use the moniker “Independent” to describe themselves and report that they do not feel any party or candidate typically represents them. As a consequence, their turnout rates vary.

Like the Republican groups, the Democratic groups represent significant issue position variation that confounds governance. Furthermore, the almost even size of the Republican and Democratic groups means that attention must be paid to all the groups, regardless of how good bedfellows they do or do not make. Focusing on issue commonalities across partisan groups may be a formula for electoral success. It appears that Trump has been more successful at this than Biden.

The Pew researchers should be applauded for unraveling the complexity of who makes up the Republican and Democratic parties. Simply labeling Americans as one or the other misses the divisions that have always existed within the adherents of both parties. The differences would likely take the form of third parties if the rules of the American political system facilitated the development and maintenance of third parties in the governing process. It does not. So for the near term, we will continually try to put ourselves and our issue stands into a Republican or Democratic framework with limited success.

Jan Hillard, Ph.D., is data editor of the NKyTribune and retired Faculty Emeriti of Northern Kentucky University.

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