June 14, 2012 - Issue 476
June 4, the Pew Research Center For The People &
The Press came out with a report titled, “Trends in American
Values 1987-2012: Partisan Polarization Surges in the Bush, Obama Years.”
My first response was “Yea, tell me something I don’t already know.”
There are decisions that both Presidents have made or not
made that have brought us to this polarized place in terms of electoral
politics. And there are efforts that both Presidents have attempted
that could be interpreted as actions capable of bridging the partisan
divide but which have failed more because of the contemporaneous context
than because of Presidential effort or capability. This is the best
and the most that could be said about these two President’s histories,
or the histories of any Presidents in terms of their impacts on the
evolution of “American” values. [Note: this is an inaccurate use of
the term “American;” that term does not mean only folks from the
Then I read in the first line of the report the following phrase: “…the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides.” Wow! Could that really be true…that values differences between those leaning towards or those in one Party or another are greater than the differences folks have on these other more visceral and more immutable characteristics?! That opening phrase did not make a lot of sense to me!
Politics cannot be lined up on a linear scale that stretches from radical left to radical right and that individuals and Parties can always be pegged somewhere along that line.
me, values differences manifest in differences around gender, age, race,
religion, and class; those things are tightly meshed together
into dynamic collections of perspectives for the individual and, therefore,
for groups. Politics, partisan or otherwise, is merely a momentary or
particular framing or branding of a short collection of
these inter-meshed values. Politics is mostly that frame that highlights
the public policy expressions of collections of values. By my definition,
politics can not extend beyond or exist beyond the material values of
which it is constructed. Politics is only a framing or a category of
framings. What could this Pew study be measuring about
I know enough social science to know that it is the actual raw questions that were asked that will be most revealing about how best to analyze the summation of the data that prompted that misleading phrase. It is of little value to discuss the technical, statistical, and practical issues of doing surveys; these issues are the grist of the arguments among social scientists. Each academic discipline builds its elitist credentials out of its special use of arcane mathematics and esoteric vocabulary that ultimately means little if the foundational theories and conceptions are flawed. It devolves at that point into the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” kind of discussions. Let’s let others do all that. So here we will not talk about sampling error, confidence intervals, telephone interviews - mobile phone or not, interviewer methodology, the demographics of interviewees, corrective weighting of the data, or the means of randomization. Neither should we allow ourselves to be mesmerized by pretty colored charts and lines - that can be deceiving where the scales that are used on the axis are used to exaggerate or diminish differences; this is the source of the phrase about statistics “lying.” But the basic survey questions can indicate what we are actually talking about.
A quick perusal of Pew’s 79 questions, which are listed in the index of the report, is instructive. The first thing that jumped out at me is the false assumption - one that is prevalent within almost all public discussions of politics - that politics can be lined up on a linear scale that stretches from radical left to radical right and that individuals and Parties can always be pegged somewhere along that line. This has got to be a conscious denial of history and the facts even when you do as Pew did and limit the range to the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Framing cannot be ignored if one wants to get to the truth
The Republican Party started out as the slavery abolition party before it became the corporatist party. The Democratic Party, the supposed party of “minorities,” was the home party of segregationist up until relatively recently. The Republican Party is now rejecting legislation that they thought up and proposed in the past. Individuals, depending on the context and the framing, will be opposed to a policy issue - say Obama’s health program - when it is presented one way, and be for most of its individual elements when it is presented another way - in the same conversation. Vice President Chaney can be a Darth Vader-like hawk and at the same time support Gay and Lesbian Rights. Framing cannot be ignored if one wants to get to the truth. Pew’s questions push responders to either the Republican or the Democratic Party, basically ignoring that responders may make very different responses based on the framing. The report imprints the frame of the current Party’s squabbles on the interviewees by heavily frontloading the survey with “what party are you in or leaning towards” questions.
The second issue that jumped out at me has to do with Pew’s extrapolation from many other past and current surveys. There is very little comparison of the framing and actual questions in most of those other surveys that are used to demonstrate this so-called great increase in a Democratic/Republican values gap. This is an after-the-fact forcing of responses that were given in other contexts from other surveys and surveyors into the current report’s framing. OMG! This is the worse failing of social science research: doing science to prove the assumptions with which you start out, rather than doing studies intended to disprove your assumptions. Doing research that is intended to disprove hypotheses is the best aspect of the scientific approach. The worst aspect of the scientific approach is reductionist thinking; reductionist thinking is also a failing of this Pew report as noted earlier by their obvious assumptions about static individual values and positions that do not take into account the larger framing and context. Pew’s report is doubly wrong and seriously misleading.
Values are profound for the individual and our community but political framing is just one way to view values
of the acute nature of our problems today, the depth and breadth of
intransigence between the two Parties in power (Republican and Democratic)
falsely described by this Pew report is downright scary. However, further
review shows that Pew is doing us an inexcusable disservice and heightening
general pessimism and fear. Politics and values have a more complicated
relationship than Pew implies. This Pew report leaves us with the false
belief that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are more
profound than they really are. Values are profound for the individual
and our community but political framing is just one way to view values.
Political framing will and does change in ways that reverse individual
and Party positions on basically the same legislation. Pew is measuring
“push” survey effectiveness, advertising and
media spin, and truncated political analyses. They are not measuring
values differences in the
Columnist, Wilson Riles, is a former