Partisan political identities have long played a major role in US politics, but partisanship has increased in recent years. Writes Kerry Boyd Anderson
Partisan political identities have long played a major role in US politics, but partisanship has increased in recent years. Identifying with one political party or ideology has come to define much of American life, even outside the traditional realm of politics. Partisanship often now defines how Americans view themselves, their communities and their world.
Understanding partisan divides is essential to understanding politics in the US. However, in a country of more than 332 million people with only two viable political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are not monoliths. They represent coalitions of people with different views and interests, so it is important to consider the divisions within the political parties as well the divides between them.
Last week, the Pew Research Center released its report on US political typologies, identifying subsets within the political parties based on extensive public polling. The Pew study divides the Republican coalition primarily into faith and flag conservatives, committed conservatives, populist right, and ambivalent right.
The two largest groups — faith and flag conservatives and populist right — make up nearly half of Republicans; they are also the most enthusiastic about Donald Trump as leader of the party.
A belief in the ability of any individual to succeed is perhaps the most essential bond that ties together the Republican groups. The various groups of the coalition are united in rejecting the idea that systemic discrimination based on race or gender plays a major role in shaping an individual American’s future. They embrace the idea of a smaller government, emphasizing the role of the private sector. They are also united in wanting to maintain America’s position as the sole global superpower.
Those ideas have proven powerful in uniting different Republican constituencies, but they face notable areas of disagreement. While most Republicans continue a long-standing tradition of support for corporations, the populist right is deeply suspicious of corporations and their profits.
There are also important differences on social and religious issues. For example, 75 percent of faith and flag conservatives say that the government should help support religious beliefs, by which most of them mean Christian values; only minorities of the other groups agree.
The groups disagree on how to treat allies in foreign affairs and on the value of fossil fuel production. Majorities of the Republican groups feel very positively about Trump, except for the ambivalent right, which only slightly prefers Trump to President Joe Biden.
The Democratic coalition is even more complex. Pew identifies the progressive left, establishment liberals, Democratic mainstays and outsider left as key groups within the Democratic coalition. The establishment liberals and Democratic mainstays together constitute a slight majority of Democratic voters.
Among these groups, there is strong support for a larger government role, particularly in providing services to meet people’s basic needs and ensuring equal access to voting. Majorities in all the groups are willing to tax corporations and very wealthy individuals to help pay for expanded public services.
While Republicans focus on individual empowerment, Democrats are largely united in their belief that there are structural factors that disadvantage some people. In foreign policy, they agree that Washington should take its allies’ concerns into account. Majorities in all the groups feel positively about Biden and very negatively about Trump.
There is also significant disagreement within the Democratic coalition. Although Democrats agree that there is more to do to ensure a level playing field for all genders and races, their emphasis on structural injustice varies; for example, only a majority in the progressive left says that success in life is mostly determined by “forces outside of our control,” while the other groups are much less likely to agree. There is a diverse range of views on whether reform is possible through existing systems versus a need to completely remake laws and institutions. Views on the wealthy elite, immigration and religion also vary.
The Pew study also identifies a group called “stressed sideliners,” who can split evenly between voting for Republicans or Democrats. Its members are often financially stressed and are less likely to be actively involved in politics. They tend to be more liberal on economic issues and moderately conservative on social issues. They constitute about 13 percent of registered voters. Pew places them at 15 percent of the Republican coalition and 13 percent of the Democratic coalition. While their small numbers and lack of engagement give them little power within a political party, they could be crucial in tight elections.
These typologies matter to winning elections and to policy. The Democratic Party has struggled to pass major legislation this year, despite having control of the White House and thin majorities in Congress. Disagreements between different types of Democrats have threatened to paralyze policymaking.
The Republicans’ coalition is somewhat more homogenous; combined with structural electoral advantages that benefit Republicans, their more united coalition can be an asset. However, both parties face a younger group of voters who feel more ambivalent or alienated than older voters, and the parties’ futures will depend on how they manage generational and other divides.
Partisan polarization in the US has turned more localities and states into clearly Republican or Democratic strongholds. However, many national and state-level elections are still tight contests. In close elections, the role of ambivalent voters and swing voters can determine the outcome.
The Pew study demonstrates that there is no simple, clear center in US politics, so politicians must pay close attention to how various groups of voters feel if they want them to turn out and vote for them.
Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica.
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