07/11/2014 09:45 am ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

Got Science? Reasons for Hope About Political Polarization

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With hyper-partisanship in Congress stalling government action and blocking science-based decision-making in recent years, it's little wonder that Congress' public approval rating is at an all-time, single-digit low. But are Americans' views really as polarized as our national politics suggest? New data from the Pew Research Center reveal some illuminating -- and heartening -- surprises on the subject.

But first, the bad news.

Polarization on the Rise

Most of the headlines about Pew's study (the first of a planned series of five on the subject) emphasized the discouraging main finding: In a detailed poll of more than 10,000 Americans, the researchers found more political polarization in the United States than at anytime in the past two decades.

The study found that the portion of people expressing "consistently conservative" or "consistently liberal" views has grown considerably, along with a rise in what the researchers describe as "ideological silos" on both the right and left in which people are increasingly surrounded by others who share and reinforce their own views.

Meanwhile, as those shifts have occurred, animosity between the two parties also appears to have grown. Back in 1994, for instance, some 17 percent of Republicans and 16 percent of Democrats held "very unfavorable" opinions of the opposite party. Today, those numbers have more than doubled to 43 percent and 38 percent respectively. Perhaps most disturbingly, more than a third of all Republicans (36 percent) now say that Democratic policies "pose a threat to the well-being of the country" and 27 percent of Democrats feel that Republican policies similarly pose a threat to the nation. Little wonder compromise has seemed so chronically elusive lately.

But while this is where most of the reporting on the Pew study stopped, it only tells part of the story. A closer inspection reveals some considerably more interesting -- and heartening -- findings.

A Vocal Fringe

The first thing to note is that, despite the increases in polarization, die-hard political extremists appear to still be fairly small in overall numbers. Tested on a range of political values questions, for instance, just 9 percent of Americans showed up as "consistently conservative" and just 12 percent were found to be "consistently liberal" -- in other words, small fractions of the populace. The big news here is the massive middle: The Pew study reveals that a whopping 79 percent of Americans hold some mixture of views on the issues of the day.

To be sure, political views vary widely among this vast middle. As Pew's brand-new second installment tries to untangle, some 14 percent of Americans can be classified as "young outsiders," who tend to hold somewhat conservative views about the role of government but liberal views on social issues. Some 13 percent show up as "hard-pressed skeptics" who are financially stressed and generally pessimistic about the prospects for government action. And another 10 percent appear to be disenfranchised "bystanders" who tend to largely avoid political issues altogether.

Importantly, though, across these and most all of the segments the researchers identify, solid majorities of Americans say they believe our political leaders should compromise to solve the pressing problems we face as a nation.

Asleep in the Middle

Perhaps the most important finding in the new studies: the extent to which they demonstrate a shocking "political activism gap." On measure after measure -- whether primary voting, writing letters to officials, volunteering for or donating to a campaign -- the Pew researchers found that there is an almost a perfectly inverse relationship between politically centrist views and activism. In other words, the more in the middle people's political views stand, the less involved in politics they are likely to be. All of which adds up to the best hard evidence yet of a vocal, activist fringe and extremely large, quiescent, apathetic, and/or disenfranchised middle.

A Question of Engagement

Recent work by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) anecdotally supports the findings of a pragmatic center. On climate change, for instance, as we've reached out to citizens and local elected officials in communities from Florida to Montana, we've consistently found people across the political spectrum who are eager to see action to confront local climate impacts.

In Montana, our climate scientists worked with people concerned about impacts on local agriculture and what could be done about them. In Florida, we co-hosted a bipartisan group of 35 officials from Miami-Dade County who actively engaged to discuss practical responses to their growing vulnerabilities to sea level rise.

Similarly, our recent report, "National Landmarks at Risk," details the climate impacts happening now that are threatening iconic landmarks cherished by all Americans -- places such as Jamestown and the Statue of Liberty, both threatened now by storm surges and rising seas. The findings have sparked concern and action among a diverse collection of patriotic citizens across the country.

As UCS President Ken Kimmell notes:

"In our work on climate impacts, we're increasingly finding people of all political stripes across the country ready to act. More and more, Americans know that the science is clear and that time is running out. They know that pragmatic problem solving is what we need now, not political posturing."

Science and Democracy: A Powerful Combination

On global warming, as on many of our most pressing issues, science and solid evidence have a crucial, foundational role to play. It bears noting on this Independence Day that, in America, science and democracy were forged together from the start. It's no accident that Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and George Washington were all citizen scientists.

As students of the Enlightenment, America's founders were committed to unleashing the power of reason to advance knowledge and to build an effective and responsive government. They understood the benefits that could come when science and democracy worked together. And they exemplified a kind of bold, American pragmatism that put problem solving above partisanship and sought to base our government's policies on the best available data and the most up-to-date understanding of the world.

It has proved a powerful partnership ever since. We need only think of how federal investments in medical research led to the successful containment of diseases such as smallpox and polio. Or how science-based laws such as the Clean Air Act have saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the past four decades by effectively reducing deadly pollutants.

The latest data from Pew paint a picture of American pragmatism that is dormant but still very much alive. As Kimmell puts it, "Pragmatism is at the heart of patriotism. We have a proud history in this country of rolling up our sleeves to solve problems. Now we just need more Americans to raise their voices enough to be heard by their elected officials in Washington."

Seth Shulman, senior staff writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is a veteran science journalist and author of six books whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Discover, Nature, Technology Review, Parade and many other publications. You can sign up to receive Got Science? via email at