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July 13, 2014

CEPEDA: How polarized? Not that much

America is growing more polarized — or so we’ve read in what seems like a zillion headlines in the weeks since the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released “Political Polarization in the American Public.”

This is the report that spurred an untold number of late-night comedy show one-liners with the statistic that three out of 10 consistent conservatives and about a quarter of across-the-board liberals say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married someone who identified with the opposite political party.

The report’s prospect of a Hatfields-and-McCoys-tinged future has inspired much soul-searching. But not everyone believes the hysteria is warranted.

Matthew Dickinson, writing in Politico Magazine, chastised headline readers for not diving below the bold type to find Pew’s own summary that “these sentiments are not shared by all — or even most — Americans. The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views.”

On both The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog and NPR’s “On the Media,” Morris Fiorina, a Stanford political scientist and author of the book “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,” balked.

“Polarization in common parlance means people moving toward the extremes. That’s really not what’s happening and not what the Pew report showed,” Fiorina said on NPR. “What it reflects, really, is the sorting out of the two political parties in the United States — the people are becoming more consistent in their views.”

Further, in his blog post, Fiorina notes: “If one thinks about polarization in ideological terms, one would expect to see a decline in moderates and an increase in liberals and conservatives. But the General Social Survey reports that the distribution of ideology in the United State has been stable since the early 1970s. With occasional small exceptions, ‘moderate’ remains the modal category today just as it was in the days of Jimmy Carter.”

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