June 12, 2014

7 things to know about polarization in America

Political polarization is the defining feature of early 21st century American politics, both among the public and elected officials. As part of a year-long study of polarization, the Pew Research Center has conducted the largest political survey in its history – a poll of more than 10,000 adults between January and March of this year. It finds that Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history. Growing numbers of Republicans and Democrats express highly negative views of the opposing party. And to a considerable degree, polarization is reflected in the personal lives and lifestyles of those on both the right and left.

Here are 7 key findings on polarization in America today:

U.S. Political Polarization

1The share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, from 10% to 21%. As a result, the amount of ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished. The “median,” or typical, Republican is now more conservative than 94% of Democrats, compared with 70% twenty years ago. And the median Democrat is more liberal than 92% of Republicans, up from 64%.  Among Republicans and Democrats who are highly engaged in politics, 70% now take positions that are mostly or consistently in line with the ideological bent of their party. 

2Republicans, Democrats and growing animosityPartisan antipathy has risen. The share of Republicans who have very unfavorable opinions of the Democratic Party has jumped from 17% to 43% in the last 20 years. Similarly, the share of Democrats with very negative opinions of the Republican Party also has more than doubled, from 16% to 38%. But these numbers tell only part of the story. Among Republicans and Democrats who have a very unfavorable impression of the other party, the vast majority say the opposing party’s policies represent a threat to the nation’s well-being.

3“Ideological silos” are now common on the right and, to a lesser extent, the left. About six-in-ten (63%) consistent conservatives and 49% of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views, compared with just 35% among the public as a whole.

4Differences between the right and left go beyond politics. Three-quarters of consistent conservatives say they would opt to live in a community where “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away,” while 77% of consistent liberals prefer smaller houses closer to amenities. Nearly four times as many liberals as conservatives say it is important that their community has racial and ethnic diversity; about three times as many conservatives as liberals say it is important that many in the community share their religious faith.

5The center has gotten smaller: 39% of Americans currently take a roughly equal number of liberal and conservative positions, down from 49% in surveys conducted in 1994 and 2004. And, those with mixed ideological views are not necessarily “moderates.” Despite their mixed ideological views in general, many express very conservative – or very liberal – opinions, depending on the specific issue. As a result, many current policy debates, such as immigration, gun control and health care policy, inspire nearly as much passion in the ideological center as on the left or the right.

6Politically engaged and polarizedThe most ideologically oriented Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process. Self-reported voting rates are higher among those on the right than the left, but higher among those on the left than in the middle. Political donation rates are roughly double the national average among ideologically consistent liberals (31% have donated money) and conservatives (26%).

7To those on the ideological right and left, compromise now means that their side gets more of what it wants. About six-in-ten across-the-board liberals (62%) say the optimal deal between President Barack Obama and the GOP should be closer to what Obama wants. About as many consistent conservatives (57%) say an agreement should be more on the GOP’s terms.

Topics: Political Attitudes and Values, Political Polarization, U.S. Political Parties

  1. Photo of Carroll Doherty

    is Director of Political Research, Pew Research Center.

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27 Comments

  1. Ed Benson5 months ago

    Lost in translation?

    You ask most of the questions in the form “how strong of a Democrat/Republican are you”. Yet the platforms of both parties is a moving target. You would not get the same results if you could ask a 1950’s or an 1845’s population.

    If you ask 1) How strong do the following influence your party affiliation: gun control, religious rights, taxes, legalization of marijuana, …” and then ask 2) How likely are you to switch parties over one of the issues, you might see a coherent pattern.

    For me, I am a Libertarian because their policies are a blend of strong Democratic and Republican beliefs (circa 2014) that suit mine.

    Reply
    1. Christian1 week ago

      Actually real libertarians, the kind that were around WAY before the ‘libertarian’ movement that hit the US, are Anarchists. More leftist than either party here. If you doubt me go look it up.

      ‘Libertarians’ in the US are conservatives, hands down.

      Reply
  2. Morton A+Winkel6 months ago

    The big difference is that liberal positions are based upon facts. Why don’t you do a survey on that ?

    Reply
    1. Thomas R5 months ago

      Many liberals have ideas about genetically modified food, nuclear power, gender, and some others that are not at all “fact based.”

      Reply
      1. Mike O’Reilly5 months ago

        Or, perhaps there is a concerted effort among the usual suspects in pro-corporate public relations advocacy groups to portray “liberal issues” as “anti-rational” (rather than “anti-corporate interests,” which is a loser for them.) That new corporate sectors are employing the same machinery of denial that the tobacco industry invented, and the energy industry perfected is the real story here.

        Reply
    2. Sean Horton5 months ago

      Facts are not normative and do not tell you what is good and what one ought to do.

      Reply
    3. Guy2381942 months ago

      I did a survey of 1 million people in the nation asking people if they are dead. 100% of the replies indicated they were not dead. Therefore, I am going to pass a law to shutdown all public land devoted to graves. As clearly no one dies.

      Reply
  3. Caremudgeon6 months ago

    Re. polarization and the Pew report: Confirms Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations in “Democracy In America” (written 1835). Maybe contentious issues would be easier to discuss if we self-identified as “city people” and “wide-open-spaces people.”

    Reply
    1. Mike O’Reilly5 months ago

      I prefer to think of “city people” as Bonobos, and “wide open spaces people” as Chimps, lol

      Reply
  4. chris6 months ago

    So 1994-2002 the electorate was more in the center or moved there(the Republicans especially.) After 2005 the Republicans moved more to the right. After 2011 The Republicans moved even more to the right and the Dems moved more to the left.

    Reply
  5. Panagiotis Metaxas6 months ago

    Very interesting work, putting things into historical perspective.
    We have also measured polarization during last presidential debates and we measure that in the US it was above 90% while in Germany was below 50%
    cs.wellesley.edu/~pmetaxas/Resea…

    Reply
    1. Ore B.6 months ago

      Thanks for the link, it’s fascinating stuff.

      Reply
  6. Jeff Wise6 months ago

    Any analysis that categorizes opinions as a 1-dimensional conservative/liberal spectrum ignores the significant percentage of respondents who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal or the reverse. Including the second dimension explains the changing demographic of the Republicans as they shift to more libertarian views in the last 40 years.

    Reply
    1. John Baltierra6 months ago

      Yes, fair comment but most populist survey editions are oversimplified. They have the data to be too detailed for the average high school grad, so they keep it simple. The gist is always less than the total picture.

      Reply
    2. gpadanny6 months ago

      Survey ignores those who may be liberal on personal responsibilities and individual liberties and conservative on fiscal issues and governmental over reach areas. Thank you Jeff for bringing forward this issue .

      Reply
  7. Richard Ghiselin6 months ago

    I see the greatest polarization is between the givers and the takers. Not necessarily Republicans and Democrats. Those who get a free ride from such programs as welfare, food stamps, free medical care etc. (takers) think they are entitled to live off the taxpayers’ backs. The idealistic liberals who drank the ‘Kool Ade” and who voted blindly for Obama–twice!–will continue their altruistic ways. There are a lot of takers out there who want more ‘free stuff’ and will vote to maintain the status quo. The givers are fed up!
    The danger of amassing huge debt and spending beyond our means must be stopped. This is not a “GOP” thing–it is a conservative thing, that includes many disillusioned Democrats. It’s also not a black thing. There are several excellent conservative black leaders who could make great presidents.

    Reply
  8. M. Simon6 months ago

    What about us socially liberal fiscally conservative folks.

    Reply
    1. Tony5 months ago

      How can one be socially liberal, which I see as getting more Govt benefits with larger Govt, and fiscally conservative which I see as keeping controls on excessive spending. The two conjoined make no logical sense and are an impossibility.

      Reply
      1. Trey5 months ago

        I think what he means as socially liberal is being pro-gay marriage, pro-choice etc. Which would make M.Simon closer to being libertarian than either major political party.

        Reply
  9. Dormand Long6 months ago

    This unfortunate state of polarization, particularly in Congress is undermining our country’s ability to compete in global markets, as it is far more difficult to reach consensus and act for the common good.

    As we have dual albatrosses as burdens, namely our dysfunctional healthcare and public education establishments this is particularly troublesome.

    Both healthcare and public education absorb double the portion of GDP as compared to other industrialized countries, yet the US has two dozen countries performing more effectively than us in both healthcare and in public education.

    Equally troubling are the two recent US Supreme Court decisions that virtually eliminate previous ceilings on the amounts that wealthy individuals can contribute to political action committees.

    Thus we have really distorted primary elections in which the victors tend to be those who more extreme and thus attractive to those with extremist views.

    Foe those states that are attempting to attract headquarters relocations to their states in this era of fiscal meltdowns in several states, it is important to consider that C level executive of major corporations are overwhelmingly moderates. The only way to assure the long term optimization of a company’s growth is to have the best human capital resources.

    While the US does a commendable job of educating its affluent, other countries far outpace us in the development of high potential, low income students. The Brookings Institute study headed by Hoxby and Avery :”The Hidden Supply of High Achieving, Low Income Students” is the classic on this macro problem.

    brookings.edu/~/media/projects/b…

    Unless we in the US address our problems of polarization and dysfunction in both healthcare and public education, we are in danger of slipping down into second or even third tier status in global trade. We have lost global leadership in far too many major industries and we are in danger of simply being a site for the sale of goods made in foreign countries and sold through our big box stores, unless our public policy makers analyze the root causes of our problems, then develop best practice solutions for each root cause.

    Reply
  10. David Lloyd-Jones6 months ago

    ‘Course you realize this poll is totally invalid: accepting the views of evil people as just a valid as those of the good.

    :-)

    -dlj.

    Reply
    1. Ore B.6 months ago

      The fact you consider them evil, rather than people with different values that you don’t share, pretty much is *exactly* what this poll is driving revealing.

      Reply
  11. John Wiedmann6 months ago

    It’s a bad day at Black Rock. If compromise means I get more, the word has been totally redefined in a very negative, self-serving way. Why is moderation bad?

    Reply
  12. Rufus T+Wifflestomper6 months ago

    What I don’t see discussed is the declining number, advancing age and education levels of Republicans, as well as their concentration in the Deep South, nor their attitudes on race.

    This is not he said she said, and I’m not a Democrat, the Democrats of today are to the right of the mainstream 60’s Republicans. I’m very far to the left of the current Democratic party.

    Reply
    1. BigJohn6 months ago

      They don’t discuss it, but look at #4 and read between the lines. They do mention the race thing, and basically say that most liberals prefer living in big cities and conservatives prefer the opposite, and conservatives want to be in communities where most share their religious beliefs. They’re describing the South, the Bible Belt, where you can get a big house for not much money but you’re often going to have to drive a ways to get to civilization.

      Other polls tell us the rest. We know from all the available data that the biggest part of the conservative base are old white men heavily concentrated in the South, where I live. Time is going to change things considerably as much of the GOP base dies off. Hopefully the angry old white man thing dies off with them and we get past all this divisiveness that is so harmful to this nation. I don’t see us getting super liberal like you, but even in the south younger people are much more socially liberal than old folks. I’m not just talking about people under 30. People under 60 down here tend to be way more “liberal” on social issues than those a few years older than them. Even our younger religious people are way more open-minded than older Southerners. Cable TV, the internet, syndicated radio broadcasts, all of these things have made it a much smaller world and those of us who grew up in the Seventies and beyond are not that different than people our age in the rest of the country. Republicans had better figure that out if they want to stay in power down here.

      Reply
      1. M. Simon6 months ago

        They are different ecological niches. And the rules for those niches are different. The thermodynamics of those places is different.

        powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/200…

        A live and let live attitude would be the best.

        Reply
    2. Robert6 months ago

      Well stated.

      Reply