November 17, 2021

With states, cities and even neighbourhoods lining up to secede, with all signs of a common culture slowly dissipating, it’s become commonplace to assume that the United States has never been so divided. This is mirrored in the increasing polarisation of the Democrats and Republicans: few are willing to switch their vote from one election to the next.

But the blocs aren’t monolithic. Hairline cracks at the margin of each coalition foreshadow the defections that often decide elections.

That, at least, is the implication of a new report from the Pew Research Center. According to its findings, the Democrats are divided by cultural issues such as critical race theory — look at how many of them flocked to Glenn Youngkin in Virginia — while the GOP are split over economic questions. Indeed, it’s all too easy to forget that an important minority of Democratic voters is patriotic, worried about cancel culture, and wants border control and strong policing. Likewise, a significant bloc of Republican voters is sceptical of banks and large corporations and wants them to pay higher taxes.

These observations echo the analyses of David Shor, Michael Lind, Lee Drutman and others: that the median voter leans Left on the economy and Right on culture. The serious challenge for both parties, then, is whether they can resist influential factions in their respective parties: for the Democrats, that’s the AOC-Elizabeth Warren progressive caucus; for the Republicans, the Paul Ryan-Mitch McConnell corporate tax-cut wing.

Drawing on a large representative sample of Americans, Pew has developed a nine-cluster typology of voters, including four Republican and four Democratic categories, in addition to one in the middle. Clusters group people’s answers to a large number of questions by the degree to which their responses correlate. For example, if people who support Black Lives Matter tend to support higher immigration and higher taxes, then those three questions can be reduced to one measure. If, however, there is a group of people who support the first two but not the third policy, that becomes a separate cluster.

Ignoring the less distinctive middle three clusters of the Pew report yields six groupings: three for each of the two main parties. For Republicans, ‘Faith and Flag Conservatives’ are on the Right of pretty much every question. ‘Committed Conservatives’ are more moderate, with a final category, ‘Populist Right’, who are conservative on immigration, progressivism and race, but moderate on economics and somewhat centrist on religion. ‘Faith and Flag Conservatives’ tend to be older, while ‘Populist Right’ voters are distinguished by lower levels of education and religiosity.

Among Democrats, the ‘Progressive Left’ are very Left-wing on essentially all issues, while the ‘Establishment Liberals’ are a more moderate group. ‘Democratic Mainstays’ are Left-wing on economics, but centrist on cultural issues such as immigration or cancel culture. The ‘Outsider Left’, meanwhile, is largely made up of voters who opted for Biden but are frustrated with the party and its leaders. Of these, the ‘Progressive Left’ make up just 12% of Democratic voters and are the whitest Democratic cluster, at 68%. They are also younger: the share of Progressive Leftists among Democrats under 30 is 18% compared to just 8% among the over 50s.

On the face of it, splitting the two parties into these groupings reveals where the two parties are most strongly united. Across the four Democratic clusters, for example, 75% or more generally support higher taxes for high earners and say big business earns too much profit, while 85% support Black Lives Matter. On the other hand, more than 80% of Republicans oppose BLM; a similar proportion believe that government assistance to the poor does more harm than good, creating welfare dependency. These are the issues which unify each party’s coalition.

More interesting, however, are the fissures that divide them, presenting opportunities for the other party to poach supporters and win the tight contests that mark the current electoral era. This is most clear with the ‘Populist Right’ Republicans and ‘Democratic Mainstay’ Democrats.

Adapted from Pew, ‘Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology’, p. 86

Figure 1, above, adapted from Pew’s report, illustrates the responses to two statements. The first highlights threats to free speech: “People being too easily offended by things others say is a major problem in the country today.” The second concerns hate speech: “People saying things that are very offensive to others is a major problem in the country today.”

Notice that all four Republican groups lie inside the red circle in the top left quadrant. This means that most Republicans, more than three-quarters of most GOP clusters, think there is a problem with free speech while only a minority think there is too much offensive speech.

On the other hand, the blue circle includes clusters in both right-hand quadrants; they are less closely aligned. Indeed, despite what a number of progressive politicians would have you think, some 81% of the ‘Democratic Mainstay’ cluster believe people are too easily offended, aligning them with Republican opinion. Nor is this a small minority: this group makes up 28% of the Democratic coalition — and is older, less educated and relatively Black and Hispanic. It voted heavily for Biden in the primaries, but is much cooler toward candidates like Sanders or Warren.

It represents, therefore, an important target group for the Republicans. As Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia revealed, culture war issues can act as an important wedge issue for the GOP, making it imperative for the Democrats to put distance between themselves and unpopular progressive causes. And the ‘Democratic Mainstay’ group diverges from the small ‘Progressive Left’ wing in more ways than one. On increasing legal immigration, 63% of Progressive Leftists agree, but only 28% of Democratic Mainstays do; 71% of the first group think American institutions are systematically biased and must be rebuilt, but only 38% of the latter agree.

Meanwhile, the Right is also riven with its own divisions. The biggest outlier is the ‘Populist Right’ cluster which makes up a sizeable 23% of Republican voters. Its members were more likely to say Trump was the best president in recent times rather than Reagan, whereas other Republican clusters either split or favoured Reagan. 87% of this relatively less educated and less religious group say “the economic system in this country unfairly favours powerful interests”, and more than half want higher taxes on people earning over $400,000 a year.

Crucially, this puts them at odds with most Republican voters — and in the company of most Democrats. Here, then, lies an opportunity for the Democrats: if they can peel away populist Right-wing voters turned off by country-club Republicanism, they can split the GOP and flip some Trump voters while uniting their own ranks.

Similarly, the relatively old and evangelical ‘Faith and Flag Conservatives’ cluster is also distinct in its religious Americanism. Among its members, 75% say the “Government should support religious values and beliefs”, whereas fewer than 30% of Republicans outside this cluster agree. On same-sex marriage and abortion this group is more than 20 points more socially conservative than other Republican groups.

So if Republicans shift too far toward religious conservatism, they will open an opportunity for Democrats. But while Pew’s findings reveal that the Republicans are more fragmented than many would expect, it is still the case that the Democrats should be more concerned. For ultimately, Pew’s research reinforces the conclusions of More in Common’s recent Hidden Tribes report. Using data from 2018, Hidden Tribes identified a heavily white 8% ‘Progressive Activist’ segment of the population that was Left-wing on identity issues, unconcerned with free speech and highly active on social media. Pew’s report finds a similar segment: the 6% ‘Progressive Left’ group, who share the same elite, young and white social profile that David Shor and James Carville warn is too dominant among Democratic staffers.

In both surveys, a much larger group of moderate Left-wing voters — often non-white, older and less educated — reject the activists’ progressive politics. And since cultural issues in recent western elections appear to be more important in motivating voters to switch than economic questions, the activist Left could prove a distinct electoral liability. This was the story told by recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Seattle. And as long as the Democrats fail to realise this, it’s only a matter of time before more of its support base is lured across the political aisle.