Frankly, I wish the Pew Research Center would occasionally keep its thoughts to itself. Sometimes those thoughts are merely insipid and beneath the attention of serious minds. Sometimes they are alarming and capable of stirring up an already excitable populace. There is talk of cannibalism being practiced by the criminal element. There is Lady Gaga. These are worrisome times. Yet the Pew Research Center has gone and done it again. The center released a study Monday that employed exhaustive polling and ingenious charts to render my fellow Americans restive, or so it seems.
The Pew Research Center’s overall finding is that political polarity in America is tremendously more intense than it has been in decades. Possibly since the Civil War, and 618,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. Of course, intense partisanship is the kind of thing that profoundly troubles bien-pensants everywhere. It leads to legislative gridlock and stalemate.
The bien-pensants agree with the memorable plaint of one of their own, Rodney King, who pled: “Can’t we all just get along?” He uttered those imperishable words as Los Angeles was going up in flames, and between several more of his epic run-ins with the law, with neighbors, and with the inevitable bill collector. Yet no matter, he was expressing the bien-pensants’ staunchly held view that if we would all get along we could establish consensus, follow the bien-pensants’ diktats, pay more taxes, accept more government and live happily ever after.
Of course, the bien-pensants do not exactly put it this way. Instead, they say that political polarization is more intense today and troubling. Or as the Pew Research Center’s Andrew Kohut, who directed the study, put it, “The only thing that’s changed is the extent to which Republicans and Democrats go to opposite sides of the room on most issues.” That leaves the center empty and a kind of no man’s land.
Mr. Kohut’s colleagues cited a massive amount of evidence, but let me just mention a few examples to give you the gravamen of their complaint. Twenty-five years ago, on the question of the scope and performance of government, the Pew researchers found the spread between Republicans and Democrats was just 6 percent. Today it is 33 percent. On support for a social safety net the spread was 21 percent. Now it is 41 percent. On environmental issues it is up from 5 percent to 39 percent. Time and again on public policy after public policy, the gap between Republicans and Democrats has widened. Consensus is dying. What to do?
The alarmists will say: Come back, Republicans and Democrats. Join together in happy comity at the center of Mr. Kohut’s room. Mr. Kohut and his friends will tell us what policy to accept and at what cost to taxpayers. Yet in the past 3 1/2 years, the federal government has increased its size to almost 25 percent of the gross domestic product, up from less than 20 percent. Traditionally in peacetime it has been less than 20 percent. Is it really wise to accept the bien-pensants’ 25 percent now and onto eternity? There is another matter. Has anyone paid any attention to how effective these policies have been over the past 25 years? Or how expensive they have become? Or what other matters have inched their way up the national agenda - for instance, the federal debt, which today stands at $16 trillion? Possibly, it is time to review our experience with, say, the scope and performance of government or the social net and seek alternative solutions. Perhaps it is time to learn from experience.
To all the alarmed social scientists at the Pew Research Center, I would suggest that evermore Republicans and even many independents have learned from experience with these public policies. They want to employ different approaches, for instance, to entitlements, which are putting this country on the path of Greece. They might want to privatize or follow Rep. Paul Ryan’s policies of choice.
Some people learn from experience. Some people just keep plodding along, spending more money heading for bankruptcy. And some seem to believe they can scare the electorate into doing the same old thing. The colleagues at the Pew Research Center are to be numbered among the latter, but they ought to review the content of the policies that Republicans are deserting. We tried them and they failed.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. He is the author most recently of “The Death of Liberalism” (Thomas Nelson, 2012).