Our disagreeing parties

On Monday, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released its Trends in American Values report, a survey that the Center has been conducting since 1987 to determine where Americans stand on 48 “political values” like national security, the social safety net, religiosity, and the scope of government. Among the most noteworthy findings of the report is that the values gap between Americans from different political parties is now significantly greater than the values gap between Americans of different race, class, gender, or age.

So far, many responses have simply incorporated the report’s findings into the familiar narrative of America’s growing partisan divide, with the general sentiment being “it hardly took a study to tell us that we’re politically divided.” But it’s a mistake to lump the study in to the conventional wisdom. First, it’s important to note that Pew generally found “much more stability than change” across political values in the last 25 years. What’s significant is that the average gap in responses between Republicans and Democrats has almost doubled, from 10 percentage points in 1987 to 18 now. Most of that jump has happened during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

There’s at least one reason to think that it might not be so bad to have partisan differences outpace those based on race, gender, and other demographic indicators. The Pew study measures how much people agree with statements like “it’s the government’s responsibility to take care of people who are unable to take care of themselves.” Political parties are, at their most basic, groups of people who band together because of common ideology—in other words, because they have similar answers to questions like these. It might be nice if society had no disagreements about political questions. But if disagreements exist, the fact that they are drawn along political lines shouldn’t be particularly surprising. And the study focuses on the partisan values divide in part because race- and class-based differences have remained stable—with many of the different demographics noted in the study hovering in the 10-percentage-point disagreement zone or lower.

What’s more troubling than when party members disagree about political values—which we should expect—is when they disagree about facts. The study found that one of the main drivers of the growing divide is disagreements over environmentalism—an area where Americans’ perceptions of factual questions (like whether we’re causing global warming) is heavily influenced by their political leanings. In one 2011 study, for instance, 19% of Republicans said they believe that humans are causing the earth to warm, compared with 78% of Democrats. That difference—59 percentage points—dwarfs the 18-point average disagreement over political values. Even scarier are the efforts to politicize the analysis and reporting of scientific data, such as the bill being considered in North Carolina that would limit state agencies to linear predictions of sea level rises, banning “scenarios of accelerated rates.”

Disagreements over values are pretty normal for our political parties. But when we start tying facts and values together, we risk losing our ability to reach policy compromises—or simply to understand what the people on the other side of the aisle are saying. That’s the real risk hiding in the Pew study: not that we are living in a world where we disagree more frequently, but that we may increasingly be living in different worlds.

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