A Glimmer of Hope in Pew’s Polarization Report

The Pew Research Center recently released a report on polarization in the US earlier this month that has important insights for our field. The report is huge, but luckily, NCDD Board of Directors member John Backman created a wonderful overview of the report’s findings, with an eye toward what it means for our work. We highly encourage you to read John’s thoughts below and add your reflections on the Pew study in the comments section.

How Far Apart Are We, Really? A Closer Look at Pew’s Polarization Report

by John Backman

The findings look dark, no doubt about it. Play with the numbers, though, and you can begin to see glimmers of hope—and opportunities for D&D practitioners.

The report from the Pew Research Center bears the ominous title “Political Polarization in the American Public,” and the first sentence in the web version is no better: “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.” The nationwide survey of 10,000 adults found that:

  • The two ends of the spectrum are growing. 21% of respondents now identify as “consistently liberal” or “consistently conservative”—double the percentage in 1994.
  • Overlap between parties is in steep decline. Twenty years ago, 64% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat, and 70% of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republican. Today those figures are 92% and 94%, respectively.
  • Hostility is more intense. The percentage of respondents with a highly negative view of the other side has more than doubled since 1994. Worse, most of these “high negatives” believe the opposing party’s policies to be “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”
  • The silos are hardening. Half of consistent conservatives and 35% of consistent liberals value living in a place where most people share their views. Nearly one-third of consistent conservatives and one-quarter of consistent liberals would be unhappy if one of their family married into the other side.

In other words, the American public is moving in a direction diametrically opposed to the bridge-building instincts of most D&D practitioners. On the whole, it’s hard to be happy about the situation.

Until you dig deeper. Some of the under reported findings and unexpressed facts hold more hope for both our public square and our ability as practitioners to make a difference:

If 21% of Americans are now firmly ensconced in their worldviews, then 79% are not.

That leaves roughly 250 million people who, in theory, might be open to an exchange of views with others of different opinion. One key strategy for ensconcing dialogue in our public square, as I see it, is to build a critical mass of people who are (or become) oriented toward dialogue. It’s easier to find participants for that critical mass in a pool of 250 million than it would be if the middle were actually vanishing instead of declining.

The Pew report notes that the people at the ends of the spectrum have a disproportionate voice in the political process because they are more vocal. But this does not have to remain the case.

“Many of those in the center,” the authors write, “remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged.” Yet they don’t have to stay on the edges, and anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that D&D can draw them in. For how many people has a dialogue been their first experience with any sort of civic engagement? And how many of them have been delighted with the process?

Data to validate or refute these impressions would be helpful here, of course. But if the impressions are accurate, they point to the power of dialogue, not only to engage people in the civic/political arena, but to start them out with a civil, productive approach.

There is still common ground to use as a starting point for dialogue, and much of it involves one of our most powerful motivators: the drive to make a good life for ourselves and our loved ones.

According to the Pew report, even the most strident conservatives and liberals want to live near extended family, high-quality public schools, and opportunities to get outdoors. By and large, concern for those closest to us trumps political affiliation: for about three-quarters of respondents, a family member’s marrying across political divides doesn’t matter.

Yes, the trends are troubling. Yet there is more than enough “raw material” for D&D practitioners to advance the cause of dialogue and deliberation.

What do you see in the numbers? Please share your thoughts below in our comments section

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