Americans are getting smarter about politics in at least one important way

For years, the long-standing survey conducted by American National Election Studies has asked respondents to place the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on scales measuring their views on different issues, ranging from a more liberal to a more conservative option. The graph below examines three issues: how much the government should spend overall, its responsibility for guaranteeing that every person has a job and how much assistance it should provide to African Americans. The graph shows the percentage of Americans who placed the Democrat to the left of the Republican in each presidential election dating to 1996.

The overall pattern is clear: more Americans can do this now than in the past. In 1996, for example, about 60 percent of respondents placed the Democrat, Bill Clinton, to the left of the Republican, Bob Dole. This fell to about 50 percent in 2000. But then there was a notable increase. In 2016, almost 75 percent placed Hillary Clinton to the left of Donald Trump on these issues. The same was true on other issues, too, such as the government’s role in covering health-care costs and protecting the environment.