By Whitney Ross Manzo and David McLennan
Recently, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) drew attention for a statement advocating for a national divorce between red and blue states. She argued that from “the sick and disgusting cultural issues that pushed us to the treasonous America Last policies of the Democrats, we are done.” Although Greene was widely criticized for her comments, including by members of the Republican Party, her comments reflected the belief that the political polarization of the United States is based on widely divergent political positions. Her comments also suggest that polarization has increased to the point that the country may be at breaking point.
Although there is evidence that policy differences, particularly on issues of culture war, exist and can contribute to political polarization, there is also a body of research that suggests that political polarization is based on differences in social identity. Unlike differences in ideology, affective polarization is the idea that we identify with people who are more similar to us in identity (political affiliation, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) and feel disgust and even disgust for those that they are different. of us.
Using data from Meredith’s survey from 2017-2023, we set out to examine whether we found evidence of polarization among North Carolinians. Do North Carolinians perceive high levels of polarization? And are North Carolinians polarized, either by issue or by identity?
The figure above shows the percentage of respondents who said the United States is more divided now than in the past, over time. Except for the spring of 2019, this percentage is consistently above 70%, and the average percentage who believe the US is more divided now among polling administrations is 72.9%. The highest percentage was Spring 2017 at 84.6%, and the lowest is the Spring 2019 outlier at 35.1%.
This finding surprised us as it is so out of line with the other times we asked this question. However, this question had an unusually high number of respondents who answered that they did not know (22%).. This poll aside, the others indicate a general sense of polarization in the public, regardless of which party controls the Presidency.
The following three figures represent the answers to the question of which party is “more extreme” in its political positions. We use this question as a measure of sentiment toward other political affiliations. In four polling administrations, more than half of Republicans said Democrats were more extreme, and in three of four polls, Democrats said the same about Republicans (as of spring 2022, just 41% of Democrats said this).
Furthermore, a plurality of the Unaffiliated, now the largest group of voters in the state of North Carolina, consistently view both parties as more extremist. Of the two parties, unaffiliated voters are slightly more likely to view Republicans as extremists than Democrats. Taken together, this is strong evidence that affective polarization exists among North Carolinians.
The figure above shows how North Carolinians feel about Medicaid expansion. We asked this question in both spring 2022 and spring 2023. More than half of all groups said North Carolina should expand Medicaid, though roughly 30% more Democrats agreed than Republicans. Unaffiliated voters were, as expected, something of the middle ground among supporters, with an average of 68.8% of them agreeing.
Unsurprisingly, we found the sharpest differences between the parties on the issue of abortion. In the spring of 2023, we asked respondents what kind of abortion law they think North Carolina should implement now that the US Supreme Court has ruled that abortion is up to each state. Respondents could choose between expanding access to abortion beyond what is Roe vs. Wade (1973), maintaining current North Carolina law that allows abortions up to 20 weeks, making abortion illegal after 15 weeks, limiting abortion except in a few very specific circumstances, or making it outright illegal in all cases. The above figure shows that Democrats overwhelmingly favored the first two options, while Republicans vastly preferred the last two options. Once again, the Unaffiliated were somewhere among the supporters, though the majority were closer to the Democrats than the Republicans.
Finally, we look at the legalization of marijuana. At least a third of all groups said that both medical and recreational marijuana should be legalized, and there is not a point of difference between Republicans and Democrats in this response. Another 21-25% of those polled said that only medical marijuana should be legalized, and only 3% more Republicans prefer this option. The biggest difference on this question was whether to keep the current North Carolina law, which only authorizes CBD, but the difference was still only 6%.
These results complicate the answer as to whether or not we see ideological polarization in North Carolina. We found large differences between groups on Medicaid expansion and abortion, but negligible differences on marijuana legalization. Perhaps marijuana, after being legalized in several states, has come out of the “culture wars” and is less controversial today than it was in the past?
The big picture of polarization
Despite Rep. Greene’s assertion that there must be a national divorce due to increasing and insurmountable polarization, we find that the differences between Democrats and Republicans appear to remain constant. There is no doubt that voters affiliated with these two parties see each other very negatively and that on key issues of the culture war, such as abortion, political preferences differ greatly. However, in other issues the differences are much smaller.
Furthermore, we found that the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans were significantly smaller, overall, than their perceptions of polarization in general or of the other party in particular. Overall, more than 70 percent of North Carolinians believe the country is more divided than in the past. Additionally, more than 50 percent of Republicans consider the Democratic Party to be “more extreme” and more than 50 percent of Democrats consider the Republican Party to be “more extreme.”
However, the differences between Democrats and Republicans on even the most divisive issue, abortion, were minor. For example, a plurality of Republicans favored keeping abortion legal up to 15 weeks. This suggests that the polarization is more related to identity than to problems, and it is very difficult to find a middle ground on identity.
Dr. Whitney Ross Manzo is an associate professor of political science at Meredith College and assistant director of the Meredith Poll. she tweets on @whitneymnz