As the 115th Congress goes to work and the West Virginia Legislature prepares for the upcoming session, there is the usual talk of bipartisanship.  Legislators talk of “reaching across the aisle” for the greater good.

That’s not as easy as it used to be, as politics have become more polarized and personal. But are the politicians to blame or are they simply reflecting the growing divide of the American electorate?

Every year since 1992, Gallup has surveyed the political views of Americans, and the most recent results show we continue to migrate toward our political corners.

Over the last 25 years, the percentage of Americans whose political ideology is conservative has held fairly steady, between 36 percent and 40 percent.  Moderates have been steadily losing ground, dropping from 43 percent to just 34 percent. By 2003, the percentage of conservatives had eclipsed moderates.

Gallup found that the decrease in moderates has corresponded with an increase in liberals. “Most of the long-term change in Americans’ political views occurred after 2000 and can be explained by one overarching factor—an increasing likelihood of Democrats (including independents who lean Democratic) to self-identify as liberal.”

Forty-four percent of all Democrats now say they are liberal, compared with just 30 percent in 2001.  Meanwhile, the percentage of Democrats who identify as conservative has declined by eight points since 2001 and there’s been a six point drop in moderate Democrats.

Sixty-three percent of Republicans say they are conservative, down from a peak of 67 percent in 2009 and 2010, but still a substantial majority.  Just 30 percent of Republicans identify as moderate.

Perhaps these shifts, particularly among Democrats, represent more ideologically pure parties.  The big tent has been replaced by the long tunnel.  But Gallup concludes that the flight from the middle produces more hard-line candidates and positions.

“The most obvious implication of this after the 2016 election is that the parties may increasingly nominate candidates who are wholly unacceptable to the opposing party,” Gallup reported.  “Additionally, it may be affecting the ideological bent of Americans’ representatives in Congress and the pressure these leaders face from their constituents to adhere to conservative versus liberal orthodoxy.”

No doubt this change has fueled the belief that compromise is bad or even traitorous.  Maybe we can replace the “c” word with “pragmatism,” which is rooted in the individualism that was so unique in the country’s founding. It doesn’t supplant theory or principle, but it does emphasize finding solutions to our problems despite our differences.


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