The Pew Research Center released one of the largest political studies in its history last week, which we were pleased to help support. Its findings, when coupled with longitudinal data from Pew surveys over the last two decades, reveal a complex picture of what is, and what is not, changing in the American electorate.
Some context: since 1987, Pew has conducted a periodic “Political Typology” survey exploring the causes, consequences, and extent of variations in American political values. Over its 20-year history, this study has surveyed the political beliefs and values of about 3,000 Americans, allowing for very useful insights about the country at large, but less nuanced understanding of how these values vary by age, geography, race or ethnicity, level of political engagement, or socio-demographic background. With this poll Pew has expanded this survey to include 10,000 respondents—enough to help us understand the many, many different flavors of American political opinions and values. It reveals an American public that is far more nuanced than our party structure allows for—some are very liberal, some are very conservative, but the vast majority (79%) doesn’t consistently fall within either of these camps.
Let me share a few of the insights I have gleaned from the expanded typology data thus far:
“Overall, 21% of Americans today are consistently liberal or conservative in their political views, up from 10% in 1994.”
The partisan gap in opinions on more than 40 separate political topics (including the environment, immigration, and the role of government) has doubled over the previous quarter century.
People don’t just disagree more, they also like each other less. “Levels of partisan animosity—holding a very unfavorable view of the other political party—have more than doubled over the past two decades….Today 38% of Democrats hold a very unfavorable view of the Republican Party, and 43% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Those figures were 16% and 17%, respectively, in 1994…”
And it is those who disagree more (and like the other side less) that increasingly dominate our politics: Of the most consistently conservative Americans, 80% say they “always vote”. Of the most consistently liberal, 61%. Contrast this with moderate turnout around 40%, and we have a problem…
I love data. Even somewhat depressing data like these. And the data don’t stop here. The findings are so robust that they cannot all be discussed in one release (much less one blog post). So Pew will be releasing findings on a rolling basis over the next six months, and I imagine we that we at Hewlett will continue to blog about it. The series will soon look more closely at the relationship between polarization and media consumption, social networks, exposure to political messaging, geographic location, and economic status, amongst other things. This has given us much to think about. I hope that others are likewise inclined to wrestle with these data, their implications for our democracy, and what we can do to improve the American political landscape moving forward.
When the Hewlett Foundation first began considering work in the democracy reform space in 2012, we had the same question that every new funder has upon entering a field: “Who is funding whom, to do what?”
We wanted to ensure we had a good feel for the landscape before we got too far out into it—both to avoid duplicating efforts and to enable more effective teamwork with other foundations. Not knowing the answers to these basic funding questions makes coordination, let alone collaboration, unnecessarily difficult. It can take dozens of calls with other funders to begin even to get the lay of the land. Details learned are often forgotten, so every time there is a funder convening, or every time a new funder comes along, the landscape analysis must be redone. It wouldn’t surprise me if, when we were first entering the field, there was a collective groan from longstanding democracy funders—yet another freshman to educate!—who nonetheless graciously helped us get up to speed.
With all this in mind, in 2013 the Hewlett Foundation and seven other democracy funders joined together, under the guidance (read: leadership, execution, and pretty much everything else) of the Foundation Center, to begin to answer these questions—and to incorporate the answers in a form that would be readily accessible and continually updated. Our foundation partners were the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The JPB Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Omidyar Network’s Democracy Fund, Open Society Foundations, the Rita Allen Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
The first step was to craft a taxonomy to help structure and organize the funding data. As you can imagine, there were a lot of vexing questions and perspectives here: from what was in or out of scope and what the main categories should be all the way down to the specific wording of each primary, secondary, and tertiary category. We laughed. We cried. We iterated—and then we repeated the process. Along the way we received enormously helpful input from dozens of experts and observers in different parts of the field, on both the funder and grantee side. In short, a crazy amount of collaboration happened.
The result is an online, interactive, data-based visualization tool: Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy. Using the Foundation Center’s data set for 2011 (which was used in the search pictured below), along with partial but growing sets of data for subsequent years, the tool allows users to map, chart, and filter data to gain a deeper understanding of the democracy funding landscape. While it remains a work in progress—necessarily, but also by design—it already offers a powerful new vantage point to consider the resources flowing from foundations to nonprofits working to strengthen democracy in the U.S.
Foundation Center President Brad Smith has a blog post summarizing his observations about the process and emerging patterns in the data. For my part, I will simply encourage you to start tooling around the site. Try out a few searches and get a feel for what it has to offer.
We will be helping all of our grantees familiarize themselves with this tool. Indeed, as useful as this data set and visualization will be for foundations already working in the field or new funders considering entering it, the real killer app for this work will be to help grant seekers. They can use it to answer questions like: who is funding the work we do, in the way and / or in the places that we do it? What are the areas of focus, key grantees, grant sizes, etc. of [insert your favorite] foundation? Which foundations are we best positioned to approach for support? What other nonprofits out there share our goals and could be good partners?
The tool provides data that is very valuable to foundations. It provides information that is both important and indeed urgent for nonprofits working to secure and expand the resources they need to advance their missions to improve the health of our democracy. And that, ultimately, is the whole point!
Lately I’ve been wrestling with the collapse in media coverage of Congress, its importance to our system of government, and what if anything foundations can do about it. Congress is ostensibly the people’s branch, but arguably most people don’t know much about what Congress is up to (other than the government shutdown, perhaps).
It’s no secret that the news media is struggling greatly—the rise of the internet has been met with a concomitant fall in subscription and advertising revenues. Many newsrooms have had to reduce staff, or close entirely. According to a recent report on the State of the News Media in 2013, employment of full-time editorial staff, which peaked at 57,000 in 1989, had fallen by 29% by the end of 2011. The same report found that the number of newspapers with daily circulation has fallen by about 14% since 1990, while another recent study found that over 400 local newspapers had closed or moved to web-only between 2007 and 2011.
Other platforms (radio, TV) cannot really step in to fill the void. Another study found that 80% of all news stories simply repeat or re-package information that has already been published elsewhere. Among stories that contain original news, 95% has come from traditional media, primarily newspapers. Someone has to do the original reporting upon which everything else is based.
This negative transformation has profound implications for citizens’ understanding of Congress, and thus for the quality of representation that we receive from Congress. Consider the following trends:
A recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 27 states now have no Washington reporters. The number of papers with bureaus in the capital has dropped by “about half since the mid-1980s.”
An online news website in Maine, a state which now has no Washington reporters, describes the implications well: “In place of having someone on the scene, Maine news organizations rely on interviews with delegation members to determine what they’re up to. This method has several obvious drawbacks, the most glaring being that our elected officials in the nation’s capital aren’t likely to tell us anything they don’t want us to know.”
Not only does the demise of print journalism impact what we know about what our representatives are doing on our behalf in Washington, it also means citizens are flying more or less blind when it is time for them to vote. A study of five small-market daily newspapers in 2008 and 2010 found that the papers paid little attention to local congressional races. On average, the papers ran 2.6 articles per congressional race in their circulation area in 2008 and 3.3 articles per race in 2010. Challengers viewed as highly unlikely to win are often especially marginalized in local campaign reporting, further reinforcing incumbents’ advantage.
If small-town newspapers are bad, large-market papers do no better. A 2004 study, looking specifically at the Los Angeles market, found that “not one story about a race for the U.S. House appeared in the Los Angeles stories.”
Moreover, quite apart from the supply of quality reporting, in the modern age of information proliferation, what can be done to improve demand for news coverage of “the people’s branch”—of its current and potential members. Especially when this democratically essential information has to compete with Kimye wedding videos?
We are convinced of the need to improve both the supply of and demand for quality reporting on Congress. What we’re trying to ascertain is whether, and how, we might help those forces start to reinforce each other in a positive direction.
I recently participated in a fascinating workshop hosted by Talia Stroud of The Engaging News Project. Housed at the University of Texas at Austin, the Project has a single aim: “to provide research-based techniques for engaging online audiences in commercially-viable and democratically-beneficial ways.” One of my favorite of the Project’s experiments to date explored what happens when you replace the ubiquitous “like” button with a “respect” button (spoiler alert: people share more moderate, less ideologically extreme news).
Talia’s conference proved to be one of the most thought-provoking gatherings I’ve attended in a long while. Fellow attendees included digital editors from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, NPR, the Daily Beast, and the Washington Post, to name a few. To steal a quote from one of the newsroom attendees: “I could not sleep the night I returned home [from the conference] as my brain was racing with ideas.”
I subsequently caught up with Talia to hear her insights about the state of the news business, and what it means for our democracy.
Kelly Born: An estimated 40 percent of Americans get their news online today. But many online news sites are struggling so much financially that there are very few resources left to experiment with ways to advance the “democratic bottom line.” What do you see as the biggest risks to democracy posed by these recent changes in media?
Talia Stroud: One risk is that the democratic bottom line could give way to the commercial bottom line. As the workshop participants told us, advertisers are interested in page views. If the Kardashians yield an uptick in page views, then news organizations have a financial incentive to cover them. Several studies document an appetite for that kind of soft news. Although there are cases where business and democratic goals conflict, it doesn’t have to be the case. The Engaging News Project looks to identify those sweet spots where both can be advanced. In the long run, I believe that it is important for news organizations to emphasize their democratic mission.
A second risk involves divisions in the news ecosystem. Some news organizations remain profitable and have budgets for digital innovation. Others are not as lucky. To the extent that the “have” news organizations differ from the “have-nots,” this makes me worried. Although national news outlets may thrive, more local news outlets may not. We recently analyzed interactive features available on local versus top news websites, and found that top news sites were much, much better off. For many of the features we considered, such as the availability of links to related and recommended news content, websites associated with top news outlets were more likely to have the feature than more locally-focused sites. That’s why the Engaging News Project works with diverse news outlets to create tools and evaluate audience engagement practices.
Kelly Born: What developments are you most excited about – i.e., what gives you hope?
Talia Stroud: I am optimistic about the future of the news media. Despite resource challenges, there are exciting new developments. We heard about many fantastic innovations at the News Engagement Workshop – from innovative ways of structuring the comment section at the New York Times to the Washington Post’s TruthTeller project to the Wall Street Journal’s health care interactive (a report on the workshop will be released on our website on April 29th and includes many other exciting ideas from all of the workshop participants). New approaches also are emerging, as news organizations partner with universities (Dallas Morning News, Sacramento Bee), use A/B testing (Daily Beast), and develop new funding models (Texas Tribune). Not surprisingly, I’m also really excited about what the Engaging News Project brings to this space. By helping news organizations test the effectiveness of promising practices and tools, we can better understand what works and what does not. Related organizations, such as the American Press Institute and Poynter, also are making important contributions and helping to spread the word about innovative journalism practices.
Kelly Born: What barriers do newsrooms face in making these changes on their own?
Talia Stroud: Many newsrooms do not have the resources to devote to innovation or systematic evaluations of what practices work. Over time, news organizations have more to do with fewer resources. Television news and newspaper outlets, for instance, not only maintain their traditional news products, but also create content for the web and mobile. This involves new ways of presenting information, from online videos to interactive infographics. At the same time, newsroom revenues have been declining. Television news audiences and newspaper circulations have fallen, due in part to the increasing popularity of online news. Gains in online advertising revenues have not made up for offline advertising losses. News organizations also face new competition from niche outlets attracting advertisers and audiences that used to provide a consistent revenue stream. Information about the weather was once, and arguably still is, a mainstay of local news outlets. Yet it is now easily accessed on an app dedicated to the weather. With these daunting realities, many news organizations have been forced to reduce their staff or, in some cases, to shut down the entire operation. Despite these barriers, we remain optimistic about the future of the news media.
Recently I’ve read a number of articles highlighting how women have helped facilitate compromise and get legislation passed in this cantankerous and uncompromising 113th Congress. One in Time noted that, “with the exception of immigration reform, every major bill passed in this  session [was] authored by a woman.” An article from Brookings quoted Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Mark Pryor (D-AR) as saying that “their female colleagues deserve most of the credit for driving the compromise to reopen the U.S. government.”
Women are also believed to be more willing to break with party orthodoxy (at least on “women’s issues”)—half of the four GOP women in the Senate are pro-choice, for example. Recent legislation proposed to address the problem of sexual assault in the military offers another great example of how women in Congress work together. According to the same Time article, the women senators “all agreed that they would not air their differences in public, but rather emphasize the fact that the [two proposed] bills are 95% identical,” and in fact had eleven of the twelve major reforms proposed in common.
All of this got me wondering: how much research was there, beyond these anecdotal stories, to suggest that women actually legislate differently—not just on “women’s issues,” but overall? It turns out there’s a fair amount.
The idea that women employ different leadership styles and approaches than men has been well substantiated in the private and corporate spheres. These studies range dramatically in their approaches, with some more applicable to the political sphere than others. One of the most comprehensive studies, a 1990 meta-analysis of experimental and organization research on gender and leadership style, found that women tended to lead more democratically, while men tended to be more “autocratic.” Other studies have shown similar results—women are more likely to “encourage participation [and] share power and information more readily,” according to a paper comparing women and men city managers by Richard Fox and Robert Schumann published in Public Administration Review in 1999.
Numerous other studies of women in society at large suggest that women “construe social reality differently,” and embrace ideals of “responsibility” and “interconnectedness” in contrast to a somewhat more common male adherence to “rules and individualism,” according to women's studies scholar Carol Gilligan. Another study cited by Gilligan suggested “female characteristics” include “a higher level of intuition about people” and “a higher level of compromise and conciliation.” Still other researchers (including Blair and Stanley (1991), Dodson and Carroll (1991), and Duerst-Lahti and Johnson (1990)) have found that “women do not use or perceive their positions of power like their male counterparts.”
Much of the research on women in politics focuses on what issues they care about rather than the way they lead: health and education rank highly, amongst others. But some do focus on leadership styles, and these are fascinating. For example, data from Fox and Schumann suggest that women city managers (an appointed rather than elected position) are more likely to encourage citizen involvement and incorporate citizen input. A survey of 500 city managers found that three times as many women versus men (28% vs 9%) saw “communicating with citizens” as one of their primary responsibilities.
In a legislative setting, one article found that women chairs are more likely to use their position as a facilitator or moderator of committee discussion, rather than “as a way to control witness testimony, direct committee discussion, and join in the substantive debates”. Generally, the literature has characterized the female approach to lawmaking as “more integrative, collaborative, and consensual,” according to a paper by Alana Jeydel and Andrew Taylor published in Political Research Quarterly in 2003.
Women remain under-represented in almost all elected seats in the United States. In 1992, the “year of the woman,” people thought all of this would change. But instead we seem to have plateaued. Today there are only 99 women in today’s Congress (18.5% of the 535 seats). Women hold 20 seats in the U.S. Senate, 79 in the U.S. House. We have 5 women governors. Less than a quarter of state legislators are women. All this means that the U.S. ranks 97th worldwide in women’s representation in national legislatures.
So, reflecting back on this research, I’d welcome a thought experiment: Imagine women held 50% of the seats in the Senate and the House. How might our politics be different? Insofar as you think the result could be positive, what could be done to bring this difference about?