The Wall Street Journal recently polled Republicans and Democratic voters on their ideological identifications. In 1990, the newspaper commissioned a more or less identical poll. The differences between then and now are revealing and explain much about the state of contemporary political discourse.
In 1990, 21 percent of all Democrats identified as somewhat or very conservative.
In 2015 the number had dropped to 10 percent. In 1990, 14 percent of all Republicans identified as somewhat or very liberal. In 2015 the number had dropped to 6 percent.
Moreover, the percentage of Democrats who identified as very liberal rose from 13 percent to 26 percent between 1990 and 2015, while the percentage of Republicans who identified as very conservative rose from 12 percent to 28 percent over the time frame.
Another statistic generally unnoticed is revealing: the percentage of voters who claim no ideological identification. This declined precipitously in both parties. These others/not sure fell from 14 percent to 2 percent among Democrats and from 12 percent to 2 percent among Republicans.
In other words, there are few folks out there who are likely to change their minds based on what anyone says. Increasingly voters know darn good and well what is right and nothing anyone says is going to convince them otherwise.
This makes it easy to see why political rhetoric has gotten so crazy. To the extent that the most committed voters tend to be on the extremes, a candidate is not trying to persuade, rather he or she is trying to rile ’em up. Nuanced and carefully crafted positions are out — red-meat tropes to mad-dog voters are in. We will likely hear more allusions to Nazis and comparisons to ISIS as we go along.
However, another statistic from the poll suggests that there may be some limits to these over-the-top rhetorical flourishes.
The same poll shows that self-identified moderates increased in both parties. Twenty-six percent of Democrats identified as moderates in 1990; the percentage is 33 percent today. Twenty-six percent of Republicans identified as moderates in 1990; the percentage is 31 percent today.
A presidential candidate must thread this needle carefully; that is, throw out enough red meat to get the ideological activists fired up and yet not so much as to alienate the increasing percentage of moderate voters.
So why is politics so polarized? I have a theory. Beginning with my generation, the baby boomers, we have become increasingly narcissistic. And a self-absorbed person is sure about his or her own rightness.
My grandmother didn’t like anyone who had to be “so right” about religion and politics. But being “so right” is intoxicating. If I am “so right,” then those who do not agree with me are not just misguided or uninformed or coming from a different place; they are by definition “so wrong.”
This implies they are deeply flawed both morally and intellectually; and more to the point, it confers I am their moral and intellectual superior. This conceit can be dangerous.
As poet and playwright T.S. Eliot wrote: “Half the harm that is done in the world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t want to do harm — but the harm does not interest them … or they do not see it … because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”
Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.