Peter Callaghan: More Americans barricading themselves into ideological silos

Staff WriterJune 15, 2014 

America is more polarized than ever, at least according to a major poll by the Pew Research Center.

The results released Thursday drew quite a bit of chatter, confirming as they did everything we know, or think we know, about what is wrong with American politics.

Americans on the left and the right are more likely to hold consistently liberal or consistently conservative views on issues than they did 20 years ago. And whereas the median Republican and median Democrat were pretty close together even a decade ago, the centers of each party have moved much farther apart.

The results were based on Pew’s largest-ever sample — 10,013 adults surveyed in the first three months of this year.

None of this is surprising, right? Move along, nothing to see here.

But Pew also found a growing tendency for partisans to have highly negative views of those in the other party. In a question asked for the first time, 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans say positions taken by the other party are a “threat to the nation’s well-being.”

That’s a problem since it’s hard to reach compromise when many of the decision-makers either believe — or are pressured by their supporters to act as though they believe — that the other side’s positions will destroy the nation.

Increasingly, Americans with strong views surround themselves with like-minded people and expose themselves only to information that confirms rather than challenges their views.

“Ideological silos are now common on both the left and the right,” Pew’s report stated. “People with down-the-line ideological positions — especially conservatives — are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views.”

As with previous Pew reports on this topic, the overlooked result is that the two extremes — even added together — make up only one-fifth of Americans.

Yes, they are the loudest and have an influence over politics that outweighs their numbers. (Though, if you include the “mostly liberal” and “mostly conservative” with their consistent compatriots, the “middle” falls to just 39 percent).

Still, that middle could save American politics if it wasn’t, as Pew described, “relatively distant and disengaged.”

Let’s start with this: How do we make a willingness to change one’s mind a virtue rather than a character flaw? Political reporting contributes to the problem with stories about flip-flopping being a core media meme. But such stories also are a mainstay of contested primaries in safe districts.

Why shouldn’t an elected official’s views evolve as they delve deeper into issues? Certainly people who are open to being persuaded are more interesting — and more useful to resolving conflicts — than those who take a position shortly after birth and defend it with increasingly vitriolic rhetoric until they die.

A blog post last week by Andy Smarick, a senior policy fellow at the education reform-oriented Thomas Fordham Institute, noted how opinions on vouchers — using public money to help low-income students get access to private education — are mostly unchanged over the past two decades.

It reminded him of an exercise in a freshman political science class in which the professor asked 400 students to write down their positions on three hot-button issues. Most had developed these positions as early as middle school.

When he asked for a show of hands of those who had changed their positions in the years since, only two hands were shown on just one of the questions.

“Is it that you were unfailingly brilliant at 12 years old, or are you allowing that 12-year-old to continue dictating your political views?” the professor asked.

Would the results be much different 10, 20 or 30 years later? Research suggests that one reason people rarely alter their beliefs is because they rarely expose themselves to different perspectives. Wrote Smarick: “Once we make a decision, our minds are far less curious, our postures far less open, and our views far less supple than we’d like to believe.”

Don’t worry, though. There will be no one around in our silos to tell us any of that.


The Pew Research Center’s poll results are online at

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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