Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Partisanship is the New Identity

The Pew Center has been conducting wide-ranging polling on Americans' values and politics since 1987. Over that fairly brief time, differences between blacks and whites, and between the rich and the poor, and between college graduates and non-graduates, have declined. But differences between Democrats and Republicans have intensified. Some highlights:
Twenty-five years ago, 62 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats said the government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Today, 75 percent of Democrats agree with that statement, but the percentage of Republicans who agree has plummeted to 40 percent. . . .

In 1987, 93 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans said there should be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment. In the latest survey, Democratic support is unchanged, but among Republicans it has plunged to 47 percent.

Democrats are more supportive of immigration rights than they once were, while Republican support has declined somewhat. The percentage of Democrats who say government should do more to ensure equal opportunity for blacks and other minorities has risen, more so than the decline among Republicans. . . .

Republicans increasingly feel that regulation does more harm than good, while Democrats increasingly disagree. Republicans see more waste and inefficiency, Democrats see less. And the share of Republicans who say the government is too involved in our daily lives has grown, while the number of Democrats who say this has decreased.
One of the things I believe more and more as I get older is that identity is everything. Where people think they fit in, who they think they are, matters more than almost anything else. Certainly it determines our politics. The thing that fascinates me most about American politics today is that how people stand on the issues has much less to do with naked economic interest than with these questions of identity. Big American corporations used to support single-payer health care, because it would save them tons of money, but now they oppose it, because their executives care more about being on the conservative side than about the details of policy. Poor, rural whites vote Republicans even though the Republican leadership is committed to curtailing farm subsidies, food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs that poor white people depend on as much as poor black people. Americans over 65 vote strongly Republican, even though the Medicare system they depend on can only be supported by raising taxes. Democrats used to oppose immigration because it reduced wages for workers, and corporate leaders supported it for the same reason; although this issue is less clearly partisan than the others I have mentioned, things have now switched around so that a majority of union members support immigration and a majority of Republicans oppose it.

Perusing the fascinating interactive database at Pew, I noticed that one thing people in both parties agree on is that we should "Pay less attention to overseas events and concentrate on problems at home." Maybe somebody could point this out to Mitt Romney? Another interesting item is that a large majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, thinks the government should more to make health care affordable. Still another is that a majority of Americans thinks "the government should guarantee everyone enough to eat and a place to sleep." Until 2009, Republican support for this notion hovered around 50 percent, but in the Tea Party era it has fallen to 33%.

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