Watching the news in dismay from day to day, it may not seem like we're becoming more liberal, or that we're even going backwards. But that's not what Pew analysts see—they point out that the shift toward consistency in the last two decades has been greater among Democrats than among Republicans. In other words, the number of "consistently liberal" Democrats has grown from only 5 percent of Democrats in 1994, to 23 percent of Democrats in 2014, more than quadrupling. By contrast, 13 percent of Republicans were "consistently conservative" in 1994, and that's up to 20 percent of Republicans today. (Granted, that 20 percent still tends to be the loudest fifth of the party, which does a lot to affect our perceptions.)
You can see that at work when you compare the notoriously fractious Democratic Party of the 1980s and 1990s with Democrats in Congress today, who tend to put up a pretty united front with little Blue Dog resistance any more. On the other hand, that growth in consistency isn't so much about economic issues as it as about cultural issues. Pew attributes most of that to two issues that have evolved greatly over the last two decades: increased tolerance of gays and lesbians, and mostly positive sentiments about immigration.
One other thing worth noting is that being "consistently" liberal or conservative correlates with being more politically engaged. In other words, if you're a higher-information voter who pays a lot of attention to politics, you're more likely to commit fully to one camp or the other. The muddled middle who pick and choose aren't the best-informed, most-reasoned voters, despite what the Ron Fourniers of the world might tell us; instead, the pick-and-choose voters are the less engaged, less-informed ones. The middle-dwellers are also much less likely to vote or to give contributions than the ideologically consistent.
In the above graphic, you can also see the disparity between the parties grow over the last two decades when you ask specific policy questions
. You can see increasing numbers of Republicans take the conservative stance on questions while Democrats increasingly take the liberal position. There are two exceptions, as you can see, where both parties moved relatively parallel, and both in a more liberal direction: again, it's homosexuality and immigration.
The downside of this increased consistency is an accompanying increased antipathy
. Partisan animosity has increased in the last two decades, with the number of people with a highly negative view of the opposing party doubling in that period. For instance, 17 percent of Republicans reported "very unfavorable" views of Democrats in 1994, but that's up to 43 percent now.
In fact, as you can see above, Pew has had to add a new category that goes even beyond "very unfavorable"—those persons who feel that the opposing party is a "threat to the nation's well-being." A total of 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans fall into that category. Among people who give political contributions, the existential threat numbers rise to 46 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans.
That antipathy is also changing the way we live, as people increasingly assign themselves to ideological "silos." Pew asks its 2014 respondents how important it is to live in a place where people share their political views (it doesn't look like they asked this question in 1994 or 2004, unfortunately, so they don't have trend lines on that question). In general, 28 percent of people agree with the idea that "it's important to me to live in a place where most people share my political views." However, that number rises to 50 percent of "consistently conservative" people, and 35 percent of "consistently liberal" people. Thirty-five percent of people agree with the statement that "most of my close friends share my political views," but that rises to 63 percent of the "consistently conservative" and 49 percent of the "consistently liberal."
Interestingly, people seem to instinctively know what kind of community they can find their like-minded brethren in, as you can see in the graphic above. Seventy-seven percent of "consistently liberal" people (but only 21 percent of "consistently conservative" people) would like to live in a dense, walkable neighborhood. On the other hand, 75 percent of "consistently conservative" people, but only 22 percent of "consistently liberal" people, would like to live in a spread-out neighborhood where large houses are the main attraction. People seem to know in advance where they're likely to fit in, based on the types of people they already see living in those types of environments. That kind of knowledge only speeds up the "Big Sort," and the growing gulf between the cities, and the rural areas and exurbs.
Finally, Pew also asked questions about the nature of compromise, and how people feel about compromising in politics. For the most part, people are supportive of compromise, with 49 percent of all respondents saying that the ideal outcome is a 50/50 split in terms of each party getting what it wants. However, the more ideologically consistent one is, the less likely one is to accept 50/50; the average "consistently liberal" or "consistently conservative" person sees getting two-thirds of what they want as being ideal.
If you have a nagging sense that Democrats are hampered somewhat in negotiations with Republicans by being more willing to compromise, or at least instinctively feeling more comfortable with compromise ... well, you're right. When offered a choice between leaders who "are willing to compromise" and leaders who "stick to their positions," consistent liberals overwhelmingly prefer compromisers, 82-14. Consistent conservatives, however, prefer position-stickers, 63-32. (Operationally, rather than ideally, though, consistent liberals still prefer getting more of what they want. Sixty-two percent of consistent liberals still say that the ideal deal between Republicans and Democrats would give Democrats more of what they want.)
There's much more detail to the study, and I urge you to click through the whole thing to see more. However, there's one thing that Pew doesn't really cover, and that's why this polarization is happening. That may be unanswerable because it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. Did the politicians sort themselves out first, and the people followed them? Or did voters start becoming more consistent first, and the parties followed the realignment from the grassroots up? And for that matter, how big a role did the mass media play in the shift? One of the defining characteristics of the period from 1994 to 2014 was the return of partisan media (something that was prevalent 100 years ago, but dwindled in the mid-20th century as the canon of "objectivity" took over).
There's one other important question about the study: What can we, as liberal activists, take away from it? The main thing that I would observe is that it really underscores the need, as has been said over and over at this site, to focus less on chasing elusive swing voters and more on activating base voters. There just aren't that many persuadables left, with more voters solidifying into the "consistent" camps. And moreover, the remaining swing voters are the ones who are the least informed and the least likely to vote, making them a riskier bet. Instead, especially as Democratic-friendly demographics (non-white and/or well-educated people) continue to be a larger and larger part of the population, the trick is to activate them and turn them into reliable voters.