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Establishment liberal? Quelle horreur!

I stand accused by the Pew Research Center of being an establishment liberal. This calumny cannot pass unremarked.

Talk about polarization and deep divisions between Republicans and Democrats is commonplace. Banal. Lost in the drone are "the divisions and diversity of views that exist within both partisan coalitions—and the fact that many Americans do not fit easily into either one." The Pew Center's Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology

segments the public into nine distinct groups, based on an analysis of their attitudes and values. The study is primarily based on a survey of 10,221 adults conducted July 8-18, 2021; it also draws from several additional interviews with these respondents conducted since January 2020.

The typology provides "a road map to today’s fractured political landscape."

The Pew website has a political typology quiz an intrepid reader can take to find out which of the nine groups is [insert pronoun of preference here] best match compared with the national survey. The instructions advise that some questions may be difficult. We are assured this is okay and instructed to "pick the answer that comes closest to your view, even if it isn't exactly right."

I was shocked, shocked I tell you, when the quiz cast me into the Establishment Liberal bucket: "Liberal and racially and ethnically diverse, they stand out for their optimism and support for political compromise." This is obviously flawed. No one has ever accused me of optimism. Case closed.

I thought of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, pseudo-scientific hocus pocus of which human resources apparatchiks are notably enraptured. Also, it should be noted, the most widely used personality test in the world. From this I can only surmise that Myers-Briggs runs a world-class PR operation. (For a critique of Myers-Briggs that confirms my bias based on being subjected to the test at a former place of employment, see Joseph Stromber, Estelle Caswell, Why the Myers-Briggs test is totally meaningless, Vox, October 8, 2015.) Comparison of the Pew typology study to Myers-Briggs is not intended to be taken seriously, but the thought did occur to me as I was taking the quiz. I do not doubt that the Pew researchers have expertise in studies of this sort and that the Pew survey was developed and the data analyzed with rigor not to be found in Myers-Briggs.

The survey methodology is available for those who want to get into the weeds and are sufficiently well versed in statistics to make something of it (I make no claim to expertise here; my understanding is on layperson level at best). Assignment of individuals to one of the nine groups was based on responses to twenty-seven questions about social and political values. These questions can be found in Typology group creation and analysis.

The quiz is another matter. It consists of sixteen primary questions that are similar to but not identical with survey questions. Sometimes a response generates a dropdown to a secondary question. The problem is not that questions are difficult but rather that the issues are too complex to be reducible to binary options. For most questions I chose an answer that was a hopelessly inadequate expression of my view only but less wrongheaded than the alternative. My sense is that the quiz is a dumbed-down version of the survey put on the website to draw in readers.

The group breakdowns are rather pedestrian. They could have been arrived at through armchair analysis by a thoughtful and reasonably well informed person. The data are useful for comparing relative prominence of groups along with endowing the findings with the imprimatur of scientific rigor and validity.

The first thing that strikes me, more confirmation bias maybe, is that the progressive left is not nearly as representative of the Democratic Party or of the population as a whole as many progressives seem to think. Pew posits the progressive left as one of "two very different" groups of liberal Democrats:

Progressive Left, the only majority White, non-Hispanic group of Democrats, have very liberal views on virtually every issue and support far-reaching changes to address racial injustice and expand the social safety net. Establishment Liberals, while just as liberal in many ways as Progressive Left, are far less persuaded of the need for sweeping change.

This leaves out in the cold someone for whom it is not so much about the need for sweeping change as a sense of what is socially and politically feasible coupled with recognition that change is not uncommonly accompanied by unforeseen, unintended, and undesirable consequences, thus best pursued with humility and caution.

The report is lengthy. I have not read nearly all of it. Here are some of the main findings (nothing mind-blowing):

  • Racial injustice remains a dividing line in U.S. politics.

  • Democrats prefer bigger government but with considerable differences as to just how big.

  • Economic policy—including taxes—divides the GOP.

  • Republican views on Trump are complicated.

  • There are stark differences among typology groups on U.S. global standing.

Other takeaways are that the notion of a political is center is hopelessly muddled and there is little prospect for the formation of a third major political party, which gets bandied about from time to time in various quarters as a way to circumvent the impasse between Democrats and Republicans.

Surveys by Pew Research Center and other national polling organizations have found broad support, in principle, for a third major political party. Yet the typology study finds that the three groups with the largest shares of self-identified independents (most of whom lean toward a party)—Stressed Sideliners, Outsider Left and Ambivalent Right – have very little in common politically. Stressed Sideliners hold mixed views; Ambivalent Right are conservative on many economic issues, while moderate on some social issues; and Outsider Left are very liberal on most issues, especially on race and the social safety net. What these groups do have in common is relatively low interest in politics: They had the lowest rates of voting in the 2020 presidential election and are less likely than other groups to follow government and public affairs most of the time.

My default setting is to be wary of social science research, polls, surveys, and the like. Useful information can obtained, but it is tempting and easy to read too much, or what one wishes to find, into even the most rigorously developed and conducted studies. Pew's political typology lays out a plausible schema for pondering our fractured and fractious nation. A reasonable starting point. There is value in that.

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