Vanderbilt Unity Index reveals Americans identify less with ideological extremes, even as Congress gets more polarized

The Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy’s VUI measures the level and amount of change in Americans’ faith and trust in democracy.  

In the first quarter of 2023, the Vanderbilt Unity Index increased almost half a percentage point, driven by a decrease in the number of Americans who identify as either extremely liberal or extremely conservative and a decrease in the number of Americans who strongly disapprove of the current president. However, the updated polarization score for the 118th Congress revealed it to be more polarized than ever. 

The 2023 Q1 VUI data shows: 

  • The percentage of Americans identifying as either strong liberal or strong conservative decreased by 2 points, from 26 percent last quarter to 24 percent this quarter. 
  • The percentage of Americans who strongly disapprove of the current president went down from 41 percent to 40 percent. 
  • The updated Congressional polarization score for the 118th Congress went up by 0.7 percent to 89.15 from last quarter—the highest ever since this data became available in 1981 when the it was 62.3.  
  • The overall score went up by almost half a percentage point to 56.98. 

“The VUI’s most recent Congressional polarization score is the highest in recent times,” said John Geer, dean of the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University and co-author of the VUI. “The shifts are slight but important as they comport with recent polling that consistently shows the public to be less polarized than our legislators. The changes remain small, but over time we will learn more about the state of unity in the country as we continue to calculate the VUI.”   

The VUI is composed of five inputs from publicly available survey data: strong presidential disapproval, political and ideological extremism, social trust, political and social unrest, and measurements of Congressional polarization. Together, these data points measure fluctuations in Americans’ general sense of trust in their political institutions and not the public’s reactions to particular policies.  

One of the five units measured by the index, political and social unrest, is usually updated every two years but could not be updated at the end of this quarter. The index going forward will update the congressional polarization score each quarter instead of at the beginning of a new Congress to better capture the mood on Capitol Hill.  

More information on the Vanderbilt Unity Index is available online

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