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6 charts that explain why American politics is so broken

The Pew Research Center’s political typology report, explained.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

US politics has gone in some pretty strange directions lately. But now the Pew Research Center has come along to try to make sense of just what Americans are thinking, with a new edition of its study of Americans' political typology — its first since 2014.

Pew's analysis stands out from standard polls because it doesn't simply sort Americans by demographic factors like age, race, and gender, and instead finds divisions within political parties that don’t fall along typical lines. To them, it’s not all about Hillary voters versus Bernie voters, or Trump populists versus establishment Republicans — what people actually believe creates divisions that are more complicated than that.

Instead, in surveys this summer of about 5,000 people, Pew asked respondents several ideological questions, and then used statistical techniques to try to figure out the clearest way to divide respondents’ views into a series of coherent groups. The questions present respondents with a stark choice between two very different options:

The actual survey respondents could also volunteer that they’re unsure or don’t know. Still, it's true that this format doesn't allow for much moderation or nuance. But in a system with two major parties (and a media environment that often lacks nuance), your choice about which statement you most agree with — or which one you’re most repelled by — can be very revealing. Here’s what Pew found.

1) Pew splits the politically engaged public into eight groups

Pew Research Center

In analyzing how the responses differed, Pew ended up dividing politically engaged voters into eight groups. Among Republicans, the “Core Conservatives” — traditional GOP voters — is the largest and most engaged group. “Country First Conservatives, who we might think of as anti-immigration Trump fans, are relatively small in comparison. Then, two GOP-leaning groups that tend to get less attention in punditry are “Market Skeptic Republicans,” who stand out for their concern about the economic system favoring the powerful, and “New Era Enterprisers” (they’re pretty moderate on social issues but economically conservative).

For Democrats, meanwhile, the party’s base is represented by “Solid Liberals.” But Pew also concludes there are blocs of “Opportunity Democrats” (who are less concerned with discrimination and tend to have a more optimistic view of how hard work can lead to success), “Disaffected Democrats” (who think the American dream is out of reach and are generally cynical about the system), and “Devout and Diverse” (kind of a grab bag of mostly Democrat-leaning voters who are more conservative on one issue or another). Finally, there are “Bystanders” who aren’t engaged in the political process at all.

2) The most ideologically polarized subgroups are the most politically engaged subgroups

Pew Research Center

Want to know why US politics is so polarized? Look at the above charts. They show three different measures of political engagement — whether people say they follow political news, whether they say they vote, and whether they think it matters who controls Congress.

On all three, the groups that are most likely to care are the solid liberals and the core conservatives — the groups that are most ideological and furthest apart from each other on their actual views. So when it comes to both winning primaries and mobilizing the base to turn out in the general election, that’s who the parties cater to most.

3) On the importance of racial discrimination, there’s incredible partisan polarization — but also a split among Democrats

Pew Research Center

The sheer amount of polarization in how Democratic- and Republican-leaning subgroups respond to questions about race is stark — and that polarization is greatest among “solid liberals” and “core conservatives,” the most politically engaged groups.

Eighty-four percent of solid liberals think racism is a big problem, while only 26 percent of core conservatives do. Ninety-one percent of solid liberals say they think discrimination is “the main reason blacks can’t get ahead”

Note on the bottom of the chart, though, that Democrats aren’t completely united on race either. That question was framed as a binary choice between “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days,” and “blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition.”

Solid liberals overwhelmingly agreed with the former statement, while responses from the other three Democratic-leaning subgroups were much more mixed. (And solid liberals also happen to be the most heavily white Democratic-leaning subgroup, so this discrepancy isn’t necessarily about white Democrats downplaying the importance of race.)

4) Most solid liberals say they have trouble even being friends with Trump voters

Pew Research Center

Solid liberals really, really do not like Donald Trump — so much so that 55 percent of them say that if a friend of theirs voted for Trump, it would strain their friendship. It’s a dramatic result that stands out a great deal. (There’s no real counterpart for it among how Republican-leaning voters say they’d react to a Hillary Clinton-supporting friend.)

5) Most Americans — including a good chunk of Republicans — want corporate taxes raised, not lowered

Pew Research Center

The Republican Party has convinced itself that passing an enormous corporate tax cut is their best hope for success in the 2018 midterms. But far more actual voters seem to want corporate taxes to go up, not down — and a significant chunk of those voters are Republican.

Overall, support for lowering corporate taxes comes overwhelmingly from core conservatives. Two of the other right-leaning groups are split on the matter, and respondents categorized in another GOP-leaning group — “Market Skeptical Republicans” — are far more likely to say they want corporate taxes raised. So perhaps the Republican tax bill will be more divisive among the GOP coalition than many expect.

6) It’s only a vocal minority of Americans who are anti-immigrant

Pew Research Center

Another question in the survey asked respondents whether immigrants “are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care,” or whether they “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.” And 65 percent of overall respondents said they agreed with the latter statement, while only 26 percent agreed with the former one.

Yet the view of immigrants as a burden is completely overwhelming among one Republican-leaning subgroup — “Country First Conservatives.” Those “Market Skeptical Republicans” who don’t want a corporate tax cut also tend to view immigrants as a problem. The other two GOP-leaning groups are either split or pro-immigrant. So this is a reminder that anti-immigrant animus is driven mainly by a vocal minority of the American public, though one that is influential in GOP primaries.