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These days, one of the topics I'm asked about most is polarization and division in America. People worry, justifiably, that we are in a scary moment in the United States where people of either party don't just disagree but actively loathe one another. Are we on the brink of Civil War? I don't think so. But there is plenty of evidence that "affective polarization" - the difference between how you feel about your own party and how you feel about people on the other side - is getting worse, with Americans viewing the other party as more and more of a threat.
However, by virtue of our two-party system, it is sometimes easy to ignore the fact that Americans of both parties (or no party at all!) hold a really wide range of views that don't fall neatly into the two available partisan buckets we've got. I think the divisions within parties can be just as interesting - and sharp - as the divisions between parties.
When my team at Echelon Insights asked people to choose between five parties rather than two, modeled after the sorts of parties you'd find in parliamentary democracies around the world, we found some interesting divides within the normal partisan coalitions.
There's some evidence that, despite people fanning out across the five parties, we'd still wind up with coalitions that look like the parties we have today. When we sliced this data to look at how people voted in 2020, we found that the three groups on the left - greens, labor, and classical liberals - all broke for Biden by massive margins. Similarly, Trump won the conservatives and the nationalists by a comparably huge amount. There was no tapering effect, where the greens were all-in for Biden while his support faded as you moved rightward. Effectively, even if we had five parties, those parties would still fit pretty neatly into coalitions that would look like our two parties today.
At the same time, new data from Pew Research Center highlights how the divides within the parties create distinct challenges for Republicans and Democrats. For Republicans, much as in our research, Pew finds the party's voters are slightly more populist and nationalist than "traditional conservative" or center-right. Democratic voters, meanwhile, are much more heavily comprised of center-left types or moderates than they are by AOC-style progressives.
This research helps to illustrate the difference between a party's "base" and a party's activists - terms which are often used interchangeably but mean very different things. The way I think of who is in a party's "base" is that party's biggest group of reliable voters. They're a large group of people who can be counted on to turn out through thick and thin. Sometimes they'll be the most ideologically extreme, sometimes they won't.
Here's how Pew breaks things down:
As best I can understand from the extensive Pew report, which you should go read for yourself as well, the right's four main groups are:
Faith and Flag Conservatives: Quite favorable to Trump, more rural, very much to the right on both economic and cultural issues. Think Ted Cruz.
Populist Right: Also quite favorable to Trump, also more rural, least likely to have a college degree, differs from "Faith and Flag" by being more economically populist, skeptical of big business. Think Josh Hawley.
Committed Conservatives: Less favorable to Trump than the first two groups, but still to the right on economics and culture. Less heavily based in rural America than the first two, most highly educated of the four groups on the right. Think Wall Street Journal.
Ambivalent Right: Least favorable to Trump of all groups on the right, holds relatively conservative views on size of government as well as some cultural issues around race and gender, but is younger, less religious, and more centrist on an issue like immigration. Think "GOP Autopsy 2012".
For Republicans, there is a near-majority of their voters who fit into the "populist right" and "faith and flag conservatives" groups who are quite favorable to Trump. Though the "committed conservatives" and "ambivalent right" groups might be open to an alternate leader, the Pew data shows that they are a clear minority of voters within the party as it stands today. The most vocal Republican activists are not actually so out-of-step with the "base" of the party, which holds culturally conservative views and likes Donald Trump.
But just as in Echelon's five-party experiment, where Republicans were pretty split between traditional conservatism and nationalist populism, Democrats are mostly weighted toward a "Labor Party" type electorate. Pew breaks the political left into four groups, that I'd summarize as:
Democratic Mainstays: This is the heart of the Democratic base. Demographically, this is the oldest and most racially and ethnically diverse slice of the Democratic coalition. They are the least likely to have a college degree and live in the least-dense areas of the four groups on the left. They are by far the most religious on the left. Think: the voters who handed Joe Biden the nomination in 2020.
Establishment Left: Slightly more educated, higher income, lives in denser communities than the Mainstays, these voters are also a bit more to the left. They lack some of the frustration with the status quo and the Democratic Party itself that you find in the Progressive and Outsider left groups. Think: Chuck Schumer or Cory Booker.
Progressive Left: In general, these are quasi-Democratic Socialist, Green New Deal fans. Most likely to have a college degree, lease likely to have a low-income family of all the Democratic groups. Most strongly hold the view that we need to be doing much more on race and equity issues, despite being the least diverse group on the right (two-thirds are white). Would probably be in the Green Party if we had one. Think: AOC, primetime MSNBC.
Outsider Left: By far the youngest of the groups on the left, progressive in their views but not particularly enamored of the Democratic Party itself. Certainly progressive but also skeptical of government. Least likely to vote of the groups on the left, and by far the most likely to say no candidates for office really represent them well. Think: Tulsi Gabbard? Maybe?
What is most interesting to me about this is the way in which people often mistake the "Democratic Base" for being interchangeable with the voices of the "Progressive Left" when that isn't necessarily the case. In fact, the "Progressive Left" is the smallest of the factions in Pew's analysis of the Democratic coalition when to comes the overall population.
Republicans spent the first half of the 2010's grappling with post-Bush era divides in their own coalition. The party establishment then may have looked more like the "Committed Conservatives" described by Pew, but the Faith & Flag and Populist factions wanted more of a voice. Thus, the Tea Party movement and all of its attendant primary battles, legislative fights, and so on were born, culminating in Donald Trump's takeover of the party.
Now, it is Democrats' turn to go through some of the same turmoil. But rather than rank-and-file voters being agitated that leaders are not ideologically pure enough, Democrats have the opposite problem - an activist and consultant class that is probably much more ideologically to the left than the median Democratic voter. (See: everything by David Shor.)
Republicans had a "Tea Party" moment in the 2010s because its activists and leaders were considered out-of-touch with with where the bulk of its party's voters were at. In the 2020s, Democrats might experience the same divides and struggles, but it won't be because its most vocal activists are too centrist relative to its median voter - in fact, quite the opposite.
Pew's new data is a valuable reminder that, for all that we focus on the clash between Republicans and Democrats, perhaps the more interesting conflict is what is happening under the surface within the party coalitions themselves.
Thanks again for being a reader of Codebook. What do you think the future of the Democratic Party has in store? Who might be a better avatar for the "Outsider Left"? Hop to the comments to let me know.
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(Cover Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)