How Are We Apart?
Continuity and Change in the Structure of Ideological Disagreement in the American Public, 1980–2012


Even after two decades of intense research, social scientists are still in disagreement over whether the American public is polarized. Starting from the premise that disagreement is multifaceted, this paper attempts to clarify how and which aspects of ideological disagreement have changed over the past few decades. Three major structural features of ideological disagreement that have been discussed under the umbrella term “polarization” are identified from the literature—polarization, partisan sorting, and dimensional alignment—and redefined into analytically distinct and non-overlapping concepts. Two different scaling methods are applied to the American National Election Studies from 1980 to 2012 in order to examine changes in how citizens organize their attitudes regarding concrete political and social issues (operational ideology) and their self-identifications with the ideological labels "liberal" and "conservative" (symbolic ideology). Results show at best mixed evidence of growing polarization. Partisan sorting has increased over time on both symbolic and operational ideology. However, it is mainly the symbolic side on which disagreement across partisan lines is most pronounced. Finally, contrary to the popular notion of a culture war dividing the United States, the public has become less polarized on moral issues, and the moral dimension of citizens' operational ideology has become dealigned from the economic and civil rights dimension over the past decade.

Keywords: polarization, partisan sorting, dimensional alignment, symbolic and operational ideology