Pew Research Center just released data from its yearlong look at polarization, a follow-up to the June release of its largest survey ever on American politics. The result is a fun and informative read about where Americans get their news and information, but once again, a distinct minority are receiving outsized attention, just as they do in our political process.
For its analysis of “Political Polarization and Media Habits,” Pew relied on interviews with nearly 3,000 individuals who, after having responded to 10 questions on a range of political issues in the initial survey, were divided into ideological groups (consistent liberals, mostly liberal, mixed, mostly conservative, and consistent conservatives). The consistent conservatives and liberals provide most of the interesting tidbits.
For example, Fox News has no equal on the left, not even MSNBC. Nearly one-half of consistent conservatives (47 percent) say Fox is their main source for government and political news, but four different outlets split that size share of the consistent liberal market: CNN (15 percent), NPR (13 percent), MSNBC (12 percent) and the New York Times (10 percent). And not only are consistent conservatives less diffuse with their viewing, but they are outright distrustful of many media outlets. Among 36 news sources cited by Pew in the survey, consistent conservatives distrust more outlets than they trust.
Several other statistics could keep political scientists busy explaining why:
Consistent liberals are more apt than consistent conservatives to block someone on social media for political purposes, 44 percent vs. 31 percent.
An equal number (5 percent) of the “mostly liberals” cite Fox News and MSNBC as their main source for news.
Those of “mixed” views trust “The Colbert Report” more than “The Daily Show.”
But the rest of us would be well-served asking why the 80 percent of Americans who are neither consistent conservatives nor consistent liberals continue to cede so much of our modern political debate to those who are.
When Pew released the landmark study “Political Polarization in the American Public” last spring, I noted that while the number of partisans is on the rise (those with consistently conservative and consistently liberal views have doubled in the last two decades from 10 percent to 21 percent), roughly 80 percent of the country is not in this grouping of ideological uniformity and partisan animosity – a takeaway you’d never have known unless you went beyond the headlines the study generated and perused the actual survey. Still, those 20 percent continue to hold sway over the 80 percent.
“They are the most likely to vote, donate to campaigns, and participate directly in politics,” Pew notes in the summary of the new information.
This level of engagement takes many forms. Pew found that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of consistent conservatives and 57 percent of consistent liberals say they talk about politics at least a few times a week, compared with 42 percent of all the surveys’ respondents. This activism is evidenced in social media, too. “Two-thirds of consistent conservatives who see political posts on Facebook pay ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ attention to those posts. Similarly, six in 10 consistent liberals who see political posts on Facebook pay ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ attention,” reports Pew. Most importantly, this level of engagement carries over into voting.
“When we talk here about ‘consistent conservatives’ and ‘consistent liberals,’ it’s important to think that they are an important part of the political landscape in part because they have louder voices in the political process. They are more politically engaged. They vote more. So even though they’re only 20 percent of the population, they punch above their weight when it comes to political behavior,” explained Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at Pew.
The data bear her out. Where traditionally turnout in a midterm election will be in the range of 40 percent, the ranks of voters will consist largely of those with hardened views. Consider that recent Pew data suggest the consistently liberal among us comprise only 13 percent of the electorate, but 58 percent of that group is likely to vote. The consistent conservatives are only 9 percent of the nation, but 73 percent of them are likely to vote. (Only 25 percent of those holding mixed political views – 39 percent of the population – are likely to vote.) The result is a midterm electorate that is much more polarized than the rest of the nation.
“What that ultimately means is, though they’re together about 20 percent of the public, together they’re more like 35 percent of the voting public. So that’s the scale that we’re talking about,” Kiley told me.
Of course, none of this comes as any surprise to the politicians. They figured out long ago that the best way to get elected and then stay in office was to placate the extremes. And so, the consistent conservatives and consistent liberals will continue to “punch above their weight” until the country awakens and matches their engagement. They hope you keep sleeping. Instead, go vote.
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