A Polarized Society as GOP Selects House Leaders

During the government shutdown debate last fall, Scott Osberg of the District protested. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If midterm elections are all about mobilizing the base, then both parties can take heart in new research showing their bands of hard-core supporters have grown bigger and more hard-core than ever before.  

And if members are looking for a new answer for all the criticism that Congress is more polarized and partisan than ever, the same study’s findings support a response that sounds something like this: We’re simply reflecting the intensifying attitudes of our own constituents, which is what we’re supposed to do in a representative democracy.  

The study by the venerable Pew Research Center  got less attention than it merited upon its release last week, even though the results helped explain the news story that pushed if off the front pages: Rep. Eric Cantor's GOP primary upset in Virginia. Among the conclusions are that the electorate is more likely than ever to demand ideological consistency from a candidate, and the most ideological voters are also the most energized and likeliest to participate in primaries.  

Plenty of other polls have pointed to the nation’s widening ideological divide, but Pew’s newest work is unusual in showing that split in lifestyle preferences as well as political choices. And the study is remarkable because it was based on a survey this winter of 10,000 Americans, or about 10 times the sample size of a typical poll.  

Pew makes clear that partisanship is becoming ever more pervasive and entrenched among Democratic and Republican voters alike. But it’s the numbers describing the GOP electorate that have gained the closest scrutiny at the Capitol in the past week, by House Republicans pondering a refashioning of their leadership to better reflect their current positioning with supporters.  

If California's Kevin McCarthy is elected the new majority leader  Thursday, as widely expected, then the Republican Conference will choose his successor as majority whip from three members representing different veins of congressional conservatism. It would be the first time the most confrontational rightward-thinking members, mostly elected in 2010 and 2012, have had a chance to install one of their favorites in the leadership triumvirate.  

As evidence that it’s past time for them to have a seat at the senior table, this group can point to several Pew findings about two crucial and overlapping segments of the party base. That would be the 33 percent of Republicans who are the most engaged politically (because they almost always vote) and the 9 percent with views revealing themselves as the most consistently conservative. Among the GOP engaged, 99 percent place themselves further to the right on the ideological spectrum than the average Democrat — a jump of 11 points in this measure of partisan homogeneity since the last such Pew study a decade ago. (The numbers for the Democratic engaged are similar: 98 percent are now to the left of the typical Republican, up 14 points since 2004.) The takeaway for lawmakers on both sides is that liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have become extinct in the electorate, so there is no reason to cultivate a space in Congress for those rare species.  

Among the consistent conservatives, fully two-thirds see the Democratic Party’s policies as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being” — the clearest possible message to congressional Republicans that their base considers compromise not just a dirty word, but genuinely dangerous. (That’s a much more dramatic level of antipathy toward the other side than what’s expressed by the 12 percent of voters who are consistent liberals, though the figure was still significant — half of them say the GOP’s ideas pose a threat to the country.)  

The share of the electorate that’s down-the-line conservative has tripled in the past decade, while the share that’s unambiguously liberal has doubled. What that means is that the group in the middle — whether they call themselves independents or more nuanced partisans — has shrunk a bit. But these days, Pew says, this group makes much less of a difference than before. The study found, “Many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.”  

At the ends of the spectrum, the depth of mutual animosity is revealed in one of Pew’s more unusual questions. Thirty percent of consistent conservatives said they’d be unhappy if a close relative married a Democrat; 23 percent of consistent liberals said the same about a family member marrying a Republican.  

The survey also revealed that political cartographers, should they choose, will have little trouble maintaining the color scheme on the current congressional map, in which almost all the urban seats are spots of blue while the rural districts provide splashes of red.  

That’s because 50 percent of the consistent conservatives and 35 percent of consistent liberals told Pew it’s important to live in neighborhoods where most people share their political views. But as to what those ideological silos should look like, a sharp partisan divide not only reinforced the House’s city vs. country split but also confirmed so many demographic stereotypes.  

Three-quarters of the liberals would pick a smaller home if it was in a community with all the amenities in walking distance, and in a separate question three-quarters said it’s important to live in a racially or ethnically mixed area. Three-quarters of the conservatives would choose a bigger house even if that meant driving to school, shops and restaurants, and 3 out of 5 said living among people who share their religious faith was important.  

The House Republicans, in other words, have all the information they need if they want to emerge from their secret ballots this week with a leadership that looks a bit more like their voters’ version of America.