According to the Gallup Poll, many Americans today view both major political parties as too extreme ideologically. In a survey conducted from June 14-17 of this year, 46 percent of Americans said that the Democratic Party was “too liberal” while 42 percent described its political views as “about right” and 8 percent said it was “too conservative.” In the same survey, 43 percent of Americans saw the Republican Party as “too conservative” while 34 percent who described its political views as “about right” and 17 percent said it was “too liberal.” The 46 percent of respondents who described the Democratic Party as too liberal was the highest since the Gallup Poll began asking this question in 1992, and the 43 percent who described the Republican Party as too conservative tied the previous high mark set last year.
It is clear that many Americans today view the Democratic Party as “too liberal” and the Republican Party as “too conservative,” but do these results mean that Americans are dissatisfied with the extreme views of both parties? Not necessarily. To answer this question, we need to examine how Democrats and Republicans view both their own party’s ideology and the opposing party’s ideology. It is possible that Democrats and Republicans view the opposing party as too extreme while viewing their own party as just about right ideologically. If that is the case, then the growing percentage of Americans who view the Democratic Party as too liberal and the Republican Party as too conservative may reflect increasing ideological polarization, but not increasing discontent.
Unfortunately, the Gallup Poll did not present any evidence about the way Democrats and Republicans viewed their own party’s ideology vs. the way they viewed the opposing party’s ideology. However, the 2008 American National Election Study included a series of questions that allow us to compare Americans’ views of their own party’s ideology with their views of the opposing party’s ideology.
In the 2008 ANES, respondents were asked to place themselves and both major parties on a seven-point liberal-conservative scale on which 1 was labeled “extremely liberal,” 4 was labeled “moderate” and 7 was labeled “extremely conservative.” On average, Americans placed themselves as 4.2, the Democratic Party at 3.0 and the Republican Party at 5.1 on this scale.
These results appear to be consistent with those from the Gallup Poll: the Democratic Party was well to the left of the average American while the Republican Party was well to the right of the average American. However, when we separate Democrats and Republicans, a different pattern emerges. On average, Democratic identifiers and Democratic-leaning independents placed themselves at 3.3, the Democratic Party at 3.4 and the Republican Party at 5.1 on the scale while Republican identifiers and Republican-leaning independent placed themselves at 5.3, the Republican Party at 5.2 and the Democratic Party at 2.4 on the scale.
These findings indicate that, on average, Americans view the party that they identify with as very close to their own ideological position and the opposing party as very far away from their own ideological position. Most Americans are not dissatisfied with the two-party system because they view both parties as ideologically extreme. Rather, most Americans are very satisfied with their own party’s position and very dissatisfied with the opposing party’s position. And the intensity of these ideological preferences has been increasing over time. The following figure shows the trend in the average relative proximity of each group of partisans–Democratic identifiers and leaners, Republican identifiers and leaners, and pure independents–to the two major parties over the past four decades. Positive scores indicate that a group is closer to the Republican Party while negative scores indicate that a group is closer to the Democratic Party.
Average Relative Distance from Democratic and Republican Parties by Decade
Source: American National Election Studies
These data show that there has been a substantial increase in partisan polarization over this time period. Both groups of partisans have been moving in the direction of a stronger preference for their own party’s ideology over the opposing party’s ideology. This trend has been especially true for Democrats. During the 1970s, Democrats on average had a much weaker preference for their own party than Republicans. In the most recent time period, however, Democrats’ preference for their own party was almost as strong as that of Republicans. Both groups of partisans now place themselves much closer to their own party than to the opposing party. The increasing intensity of these ideological preferences helps to explain increasing party loyalty among voters, which has reached its highest level in half a century in recent elections.
Dr. Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, and the author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States (2004, McGraw-Hill). He can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.