The Disunited States of America

Interview with Scott Keeter

Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research at Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., was part of the team that conducted one of the year’s most newsworthy surveys. More than gender, race, age, or class, Americans are divided by political values, and those divisions are intensifying, according to the Pew Research Center American Values survey.

   A political scientist by training, Keeter has been associated with Pew and its surveys of American values since the mid-1990s.

   This latest American Values survey finds deepening differences in the values of Republicans and Democrats. “Republicans are most distinguished by their increasingly minimalist views about the role of government and lack of support for environmentalism,” the survey summary says. “Democrats have become more socially liberal and secular.”
The two groups are furthest apart in their attitudes about the social safety net – their opinions “about the government’s responsibility to care for the poor, whether the government should help more needy people if it means adding to the debt, and whether the government should guarantee all citizens enough to eat and a place to sleep.”

   The gap has widened also in measures of religious belief and social conservatism. Democrats have become more secular, more positive in their views of immigrants and more supportive of policies aimed at achieving equal opportunity, according to Pew.

   Swing voters, comprising about a quarter of all registered voters, feel “cross-pressured,” the poll says. They feel more akin to Romney supporters regarding the social safety net and immigration, but they tilt closer to Obama supporters in opinions about labor unions and some social issues.

   The poll finds American united around other values. There is little support for the idea of American “declinism.” According to the poll: “A large majority agrees that ‘as Americans we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want.’ The public’s confidence in the nation has not been dulled, even as Americans have become more skeptical about prospects for economic growth.”

   The survey was conducted in April among 3,008 adults nationwide, tracking the underlying values that shape policy and political opinions. It is the latest in a series of Pew polls started in 1987. Keeter talked to Reflections last month.

REFLECTIONS: How did we get to such divisiveness?

KEETER: It’s probably a fool’s errand to attempt a grand theory. But Democrats will likely say George W. Bush started it by taking a no-compromise approach to government. And Republicans will probably point to the positions taken by Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid.

It’s worth noting that lots of countries have trouble reaching consensus when they are under economic stress. Over the last two decades, most of America has experienced low or little economic growth, and that makes for a hard environment for finding common ground.

REFLECTIONS: Is this cause for alarm?

KEETER: The size of the partisanship gap had been stable for years – a difference of 10 percentage points, and that’s enough to get a good political dog fight – but now the gap is 18 points.

In a sense, this is what many political scientists had been hoping for years ago: They argued that our political system needs responsible political parties that give voters a clear choice. That wish is coming true. The two parties are becoming more and more ideologically homogeneous.

But, so far, the result has been a dysfunctional political system that appears unable to govern or solve problems.

REFLECTIONS: Why is partisanship outstripping other divides such as race and gender?

KEETER: I believe it’s a result of several factors. One is the consolidation of the New Deal realignment with southern conservatives finally settling in the Republican Party, thus making for more ideologically homogeneous parties on both sides. Related to this is gerrymandering, which has increased in effectiveness and – perhaps along with partisan media that enforce ideological discipline on members of each party – made for a more ideological corps of party leaders in Congress and the states. Leaders matter, and if leaders aren’t willing to compromise, and don’t hold any heterodox views, followers are likely to mirror them over time.

REFLECTIONS: Is this the worst it’s ever been?

KEETER: I wouldn’t say that, certainly not when we look back to the Civil War. And the Founding Fathers, revered as they are, said nasty things about each other. Today we hear of “Romneyhood” or “Obamalony” – that’s nothing compared to other periods in our history.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve had lots of politicians who knew how to work across the aisle to accomplish goals despite partisanship. I think of Bob Dole and Teddy Kennedy. And people say they want to see this. There was national bipartisan feeling after the financial crisis in 2008. Americans wanted Washington to work together to solve it. It was bipartisan, briefly, after the Obama election. Even people who didn’t vote for him were excited about the national accomplishment of electing the first African American as president.

The current situation could change. Keep in mind that both parties are shrinking. As they become more ideologically pure, they get smaller. But at some point, a party can become so pure that it no longer wins elections.

Demographically the country is changing quite quickly. It may be that, if the GOP doesn’t self-correct, it could face dwindling appeal to people who aren’t white. On the Democratic side, the party could become so diverse in its interest groups that it can’t provide an effective message.

REFLECTIONS: Yet partisanship isn’t the whole story. The survey identifies values that keep us together.

KEETER: America is more than its government and politics. The striking thing is the sense of continuity in its values, not the changes. Yes, we’re seeing a growing liberalism on some social issues, and some growth in secular attitudes, but other values remain consistent – the belief in hard work in order to get ahead, a can-do spirit, the importance of religious faith, an acceptance of diversity as a dimension of the nation’s greatness, the rejection of notions of national decline.

REFLECTIONS: How are young people faring?

KEETER: There’s a lot of noise about the failure of schools to teach civics and citizenship, but I don’t know how much of that is true. We know young people particularly are disengaged from the political process, but they always have been. Even so, we are seeing some evidence that young people are somewhat more engaged than previous generations in volunteer service and other civic activities – soup kitchens, tutoring, environmental clean-up. In fact there was an uptick in voter turnout among young people – a reversal of a downward voting trend – in 2004 and 2008.

There’s much bemoaning about the values of young people, but I think that’s unfair. Teenage pregnancy is down. Drug use is not increasing. Young people are more accepting of social diversity – gay rights, racial integration. Yes, their attitudes toward marriage have changed, and they are more likely to say one parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together. But they put a high priority on being a good parent and on trying to make good relationships.

REFLECTIONS: Is ideology taking the place of church and civic clubs as a shaper of individual identity?

KEETER: I don’t get the sense that people are using politics that way. Church membership and Rotary Club and other organizations have a potentially moderating influence, because they bring people together to work side by side on common goals. They get to see each other as human beings and not as caricatures.

REFLECTIONS: That’s not what happens when people watch cable TV news.

KEETER: The polarized talk on cable – Fox News, MSNBC, and others – is reaching a very small public. That public’s reach is greater than its numbers, but most people still get their news from mainstream news organizations. Americans tell us that they don’t want polarization to get in the way of possible solutions. The problem is politicians have trouble hearing that if they listen only to the most ideological voices in their party.