WASHINGTON -- 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: "Why can't we all get along?" He uttered those imperishable words as Los Angles 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 and 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.
Kohut's colleagues cited a massive amount of evidence, but let me just mention a few 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?