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Liberals Aren't as Divided as They Think

New research finds that, on public-policy issues, they enjoy a stronger consensus than conservatives.

Despite the unpopularity of President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress, Democrats are fretting about the 2018 elections. Can "I'm with her" moderates and Bernie Sanders-supporting leftists join forces? Or will the party be torn apart by internal divisions?

Reassuring new research suggests those perceived differences aren't all that real. It reports that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the attitudes of American liberals are more internally aligned than those of their conservative counterparts.

Peter Ondish and Chadly Stern, psychologists at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, argue that liberals' love of individualism can make effective group activism more of a challenge. But worries that they are fundamentally split on policy positions appear to be overblown.

"On a national level, liberals consistently possessed more in-group consensus on political issues than did conservatives," they write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The researchers utilized two large sets of data spanning four decades. In their first study, they analyzed answers given by 53,081 Americans who completed the General Social Survey between 1974 and 2016.

They noted each respondent's self-described ideology (on a scale of one to seven), and their views on more than 350 issues, covering such topics as government spending, crime and punishment, defense and the military, and abortion rights.

Not surprisingly, they found the least consensus among self-described moderates. But liberals were significantly more in agreement with one another than were conservatives.

The second study featured 29,042 people who took part in the American National Election Studies between 1972 and 2012. Using similar methodology (in this case, their answers to 55 policy-related questions), the researchers again found liberals were more in alignment.

The attitudes of American liberals are more internally aligned than those of their conservative counterparts.

What's more, this held true "even after adjusting for demographic factors such as education, gender, and ethnicity."

So why is working with liberal activists "like herding casts," in the (possibly apocryphal) words of President Bill Clinton? Ondish and Stern have some ideas.

Compared to conservatives, "Liberals tend to value maintaining a sense of uniqueness and individuality," they note. Their tendency "to heavily deliberate on judgments" and resist "conforming to the goals and attitudes that others espouse" could "undermine generating an effective social movement."

So getting liberals into a group-solidarity mindset can be challenging. But don't mistake that for division. When it comes to issues, liberals tend to be on the same page—and if you doubt that internal consensus matters, ask Mitch McConnell about his failed attempts to pass health-care legislation.

"Legislative bodies through the world often vote to make integral changes to a society with the winning side possessing only a slight majority," Ondish and Stern write. "One ideological group possessing slightly greater consensus than others has the potential to make a meaningful impact on society."