June 17, 2014

Which party is more to blame for political polarization? It depends on the measure

Our report on political polarization in America has renewed debate among journalists and academics over what is called “asymmetrical polarization” – the idea that one party has moved further ideologically than the other. A number of congressional scholars have concluded that the widening partisan gap in Congress is attributable mostly to a rightward shift among Republican lawmakers. But what about the public? Have Republicans nationwide shifted further than Democrats over the past two decades?

The report addresses this issue in considerable detail. What we find is clear evidence of more ideologically consistent thinking on both sides of the spectrum, as well as greater levels of partisan antipathy, though the latter is currently more acute on the right than on the left.

Ideological consistency. Currently, 23% of Democrats have liberal views across nearly all items on a 10-item political values scale, while another 33% have mostly liberal views. Among Republicans, comparable shares have either consistently conservative (20%) or mostly conservative (33%) attitudes.

In both parties, the shares expressing mostly ideological views have increased, but in very different ways. The percentage of Democrats who are liberal on all or most value dimensions has nearly doubled from just 30% in 1994 to 56% today. The share who are consistently liberal has quadrupled from just 5% to 23% over the past 20 years.

In absolute terms, the ideological shift among Republicans has been more modest. In 1994, 45% of Republicans were right-of-center, with 13% consistently conservative. Those figures are up to 53% and 20% today.

But there are two key considerations to keep in mind before concluding that the liberals are driving ideological polarization. First, 1994 was a relative high point in conservative political thinking among Republicans. In fact, between 1994 and 2004 the average Republican moved substantially toward the center ideologically, as concern about the deficit, government waste and abuses of social safety net that characterized the “Contract with America” era faded in the first term of the Bush administration.

Since 2004, Republicans have veered sharply back to the right on all of these dimensions, and the GOP ideological shift over the past decade has matched, if not exceeded, the rate at which Democrats have become more liberal.

A second consideration is that the nation as a whole has moved slightly to the left over the past 20 years, mostly because of a broad societal shift toward acceptance of homosexuality and more positive views of immigrants. Twenty years ago, these two issues created significant cleavages within the Democratic Party, as many otherwise liberal Democrats expressed more conservative values in these realms. But today, as divisions over these issues have diminished on the left, they have emerged on the right, with a subset of otherwise conservative Republicans expressing more liberal values on these social issues.

Partisan Antipathy. Among members of both parties, the shares who express very unfavorable opinions of the opposing party have approximately doubled since 1994. Today, 43% of Republicans have a highly negative opinion of the Democratic Party, while nearly as many Democrats (38%) feel very unfavorably toward the GOP.

Even so, today there is greater partisan antipathy on the right than the left. In the current survey, we asked those who had a very unfavorable opinion of the opposing party: Would you say that party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being, or wouldn’t you go that far?” Among Democrats, 27% go so far as to say the GOP is a threat to the well-being of the country. A higher percentage of Republicans (36%) say Democratic policies threaten the nation.


The disparity is much larger when ideology is factored in. Among consistently conservative Republicans, 66% regard Democratic policies as a threat to the nation’s well-being. Substantially fewer (50%) of consistently liberal Democrats think Republican policies represent a threat to the nation.

One caveat: There is no trend on the “threat” question. Other data show that Republicans are intensely opposed to the Obama presidency, which is likely a factor in their highly negative opinions of the Democratic Party. At a comparable point in George W. Bush’s second term, negative views of Bush among Democrats were on par with negative opinions of Obama among Republicans today. But it is not possible to determine the depth of Democratic antipathy toward the GOP at that time.

The Personal Side of Polarization. Among the questions we have gotten on polarization is this: If Republicans and Democrats increasingly view the opposing party in highly negative terms, do they also view each other more negatively?

Comparably small shares in both parties – 15% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans – say they would be unhappy if a family member married someone from the opposing party. Even among consistent conservatives and liberals, the numbers who would have angst over a family marriage to a someone from the “other” party are not very large (30% of consistent conservatives, 23% of consistent liberals).


Yet on another dimension of personal polarization – having friends who generally share your politics – consistent conservatives stand out. Fully 63% of consistent conservatives say most of their close friends share their political views, compared with 49% of consistent liberals. Moreover, far more on the right (50%) than left (35%) say it is important to live in a place where most people share their political views.

While these “ideological silos” are more common on the right than the left, what is equally striking is how little it matters for those with a mix of liberal and conservative views. Just 25% of those with mixed ideological views say most of their friends share their views and just 22% say it is important to live in a community where most share their views.

Topics: Political Attitudes and Values, Political Polarization

  1. Photo of Carroll Doherty

    is director of political research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    So interesting reading through these comments now — with Sanders as a Dem candidate. For so long, the right wrongly called dems or libs socialist, and since Bernie, more folks are coming out flatly for socialism. One kid even told me that ‘communism is above socialism’ I asked a Berner yesterday to take the Political Compass quiz, after a long argument on twitter. He was far left, “it says I’m a ‘commie bastard’ ???” They said. Lol…but seriously, it’s not funny.

  2. Dave Deal2 years ago

    I don’t know where you get the facts but can someone answer me one question… When was the last time, besides the recent budget deal between Bohner and Obama, that the democrats have worked with Republicans? We hear from every news source, the president, minority leaders, and Santa that the Republicans refuse to work with the democrats… I think the Republicans have caved nicely over the last 7 years… I believe that the democrat party (now socialist) wants to destroy the Republican party and be a one party system with no checks and balances.. God save us…

    1. Alexander Hoare2 years ago

      Dave Deal, why do you believe that? Whay do you say that the Democratic Party is now Socialist? I don’t think the Democrats want a one party system, but I imagine that any political party would appreciate consistent power and political dominance in a multi party system. Look at the right leaning LDP in Japan, They are a center right party that never had major opposition until 2009-2011 when for the first time in their history a different party, the DPJ, had the political majority. It was a democratic system, dominated by one party even though there were other political parties. Not ideal. Ideally America would break up into more political parties to give more variance and choice and enable coalition governments, but the parties cannot afford to do that, giving another a solid uncontested majority. Political propaganda from both parties also contributes to mass polarization, dragging more and more people to the nexus of the major parties.

  3. David Sloat3 years ago

    I’ve read the above report and I don’t see support for the conclusion that Republicans are more polarizing in 2014, compared to Democrats. I believe it does disservice to your claim of no partisanship.

    The democrats are 56% liberal versus republicans being 53% conservative. Seems like a healthy balance and a good discussion of issues would come out of such a balance. But calling one side “polarizing” is a cheap shot especially when their value is lower. Remember it takes two to tangle and be polarized. The democrats are using this to say the republicans are polarizing and not doing what the democrats want. Evadentally, the republicans are winning the battle to get the publics support for their beliefs.

    Sorry you had to blame one side when a healthy debate is what is needed.

    Who cares if republicans are more conservative now than in 2004. They are winning the support of the people and that makes them right on the current issues this country faces. Back in 2004 the issues were different calling for different responses, ie less conservative responses.

    1. David J Gill2 years ago

      It doesn’t matter if Republicans are more or less conservative, the problem is that Republicans are more divisive, more obstructive, less willing to debate and less willing to compromise.

      I SAY THIS WITH SINCERITY and WITHOUT HYPERBOLE to the best of my ability.

      This study misses part of the story…which is that more extreme views among Republicans have been on the rise since 1980…not just ’94. Democrats are more likely than previously to identify as “liberal” because of the growing level of insulting criticism on the right. And the recovery of the word “liberal” after a long campaign by Republicans to stigmatise the word. Other studies over the last few years tell a clearer story of rightward bias among among Republicans. (Directly below.)


      The right has become vociferous in its denunciation of Democrats…much of this seems to be antipathy toward Obama.

      So, the idea that slightly more Democrats have moved left than Republicans have moved right is not a good reading of the situation. And haven’t we all observed that the growth of the conservative movement began with Reagan and this has resulted to many changes in Washington and in govt, regardless if one feels it is a positive or negative development, this is an objective fact.

      There is no opportunity for a health debate in large part because Republican attitudes and strategy has move strongly toward a disdain for compromise. This fact is probably totally unprecedented in American history (of Congress.) Note the use historical use of filibusters, holds, threats to shut down govt and threats of impeachment. The current House of Reps tactic or repeatedly re-passing a bill to rescind Obamacare despite having no chance with the Senate or president is unprecedented.

      A legislature and a democracy cannot function if one side of the partisan divide refuses to respect the validity of opponents viewpoints, respect compromise, believe in debate and hold the fair,open democratic process as sacrosanct.

  4. MR TADS3 years ago

    war against women ,blacks ,Hispanic, illegal immigrants, rich and poor.
    these are democrats accusations .
    just because you disagree in policy .doesn’t mean you’re at war.

    1. cathy carron3 years ago

      Obama & the Democrats use hyperbole to rouse their base…even though it’s proving to be divisive, it accomplishes the goals of the DNC.

  5. Bruce Benson3 years ago

    I completed a phone survey last night. There were a bunch of questions about gay rights and religion, to name a few. I wanted to take a moment and comment about the experience from my perspective.

    First, the poll took too long. Had I known, I would not have participated. I almost hung up a few times but stayed with it. I know there is a lot of info to gather, but you must be more cognizant of the time and stamina of the responder. There were times I was picking an answer just to get it over with. You probably poisoned the well for my participation on any poll from any pollster going forward. You cannot be trusted.

    Secondly, there were some very poorly worded questions – or perhaps more appropriately – poorly worded answers that do not agree with the questions. The one in particular was something about Right and Wrong is eternal or changes over time. As written and given the answers, the question could not be answered. I would think these questions could be more carefully vetted. Why take a concept that complex and reduce it to an either-or answer.

    There was another question about gay marriage that my answer was not one of the options.

    There were plenty of others that I would characterize as “simple answers to complex questions.” I wonder how you can draw any conclusions from this type of polling.

    Thanks for letting me vent.

    1. Ashimself3 years ago

      I could not agree more… I just finished that same poll, and there were many of the answers that required me to chose one or another in which neither answer encompassed my view point.

  6. azborderdude3 years ago

    To get a good view of the political demographics, the rising tide or Independent voters ought to be surveyed. There are many voters that are leaving the two surveyed and not alining with another party. You might note that I did not use the term “big two” in my reference to the parties because in some counties the third voting bloc is the Democrats. And, in many areas the independent voter registrations are creeping up on the number one position.

  7. Lee Lane3 years ago

    Why blame? Polarization is connected with decreased voter ignorance. Its effect on the quality of U.S. governance is, at worst, ambiguous.

    And how important are the partisan attitudes as drivers of polarization? The decline of divisive regional issues, a more tightly integrated national economy, and demographic change may be more potent drivers.

    Fascinating poll results, but the analysis needs a bit more work.

    1. NB3 years ago

      Decreased voter ignorance? Where, might I ask, are people gaining this knowledge of public affairs? The sensationalist and cursory television news outlets? The destitute dailies, too short of funds to provide meaningful coverage? The politicized radio broadcasts? And these are the sources “informed” citizens draw from. The reality is a minority follow any journalism source with consistency. Voter ignorance endemic, and will only grow as voter turnout falls. Journalism is a democratic institution. If people refuse to take part in the most fundamental of democratic activities, they will never grasp the importance of the sources whose intention is to equip them for that task.

  8. C. Strickland3 years ago

    It is past time to call a constitutional convention and create a more responsive and responsible system of government. The ideal of checks and balances does not work and needs to be chucked in favour of a parliamentary system with a separation of head of state and head of government. The US system is not a system anyone in the world wants as a vehicle for democracy. It is a sclerotic system hostage to wealth and privilege. There are many democracies with better governments than the USA.

    1. charlie starr3 years ago

      We live in a constitutional republic If you feel that you want to live in a pure democracy and there are “better governments than the USA” – GO THERE!

      1. J. Rowanhill3 years ago

        I disagree.

        The two party system, statistically rigged districting, silly wedge issues, and the inability to form coalitions are PROBLEMS facing this country.

        They should be solved with better government structure. Not ignored at the bequest of the established political machine.

      2. lara bee3 years ago

        If everyone who saw problems decided to leave, there wouldn’t be many people left. The solution isn’t to leave if you don’t like it. The solution is to get active and work for your beliefs and work to understand others.

    2. David J Gill2 years ago

      Yes, our government construct is very cumbersome. I believe it has functioned reasonably well in the past two centuries because America’s founding ideals, our Constitution and a certain idealism about democracy and Congressional responsibility have held sway. Republicans have thrown those things out the window….they want to change, stretch of ignore the rules when it serves their purposes. Despite their super patriotic posture and flag waving, their ignorance about American ideals and history is shocking.

  9. Jill3 years ago

    Perhaps a little context is needed here. Given the action and behavior of the current administration (National Debt, Obamacare, arbitrary following/not following the law, etc) , wouldn’t it be shocking if there WEREN’T a substantial swing toward conservatism?? The years shown on the charts are a big part of the story but not addressed in the commentary.

  10. slk3 years ago

    smart families always were fiscally responsible!!! exactly how do you move that to the right!!! since when is not spending everything you have plus more, extreme??? spending 50% more then you make, weekly, is normal!!! there are too many out there, who only listen, and don’t do their own homework!!! remember, whatever you hear, isn’t always the truth!!!

  11. Charles3 years ago

    Sadly, America has become apathetic, complacent and too concerned about how many “likes” they get on social media to concern themselves with the minutia of politics, money and what will affect them directly.
    Unless they get an app for “staying connected with real issues”, they don’t care.
    The sad truth is that when things go bad, people will be as clueless as they are now.
    Again, no one cares.

  12. Kenneth Grim3 years ago

    I would call it ironic An article seeking to place blame for polarization. Its your fault. No, its your fault. My experts say its your fault. Well, my experts say its your fault. What total garbage. Are you trying to solve a problem, or aggravate it?

  13. Allen3 years ago

    What this poll says to me is the well-known fact and exhibited behavior that Republicans are more “dug in the trenches”; unyielding; and unwilling to compromise . . . whereas, Democrats are more accepting and willing to compromise to get things done. The charts above demonstrate this according to the steadfast positions held by both parties. Additionally, we must remember while conducting this poll, one’s viewpoint or opinion is based on the source of their information or misinformation as it were — garbage in; garbage out (Hello! Fox News).

    1. slk3 years ago

      of course it’s easier for liberals/socialists…you’re playing with other peoples money!!! how are you doing with your own money???

    2. Midnight Krewzer3 years ago

      “…well known fact…”? Allen’s deep, visceral hatred for all things conservative (or even moderate) is clearly showing — and he’s not ashamed of it at all. He’s living proof of the statistical results.

    3. morbius3 years ago

      The Democrats in Congress are all for compromise when they are not in control of both houses. This changes pretty quickly when they command both houses.
      We do need a constitutional amendment requiring term limits. Also, our representatives need to live by the same laws & environments that we do. For example, why should they get retirement packages for serving a term. Let them experience our “pain”; let them contribute to their own retirement & we’ll give them matching dollars (up to a point). Let them have “ObamaCare plans. I’m tired of the increasing social separation of the government class telling us how we should live while not having to do this themselves. Down with the IRS, Energy Dept. & Education Dept. Sorry for rambling.

    4. cathy carron3 years ago

      Tell that to Senator Harry Reid – he won’t entertain any bills passed by the house….so nothing gets done…ya gotta negotiate Harry….

  14. David3 years ago

    lol…what a spin job…you don’t like the way the numbers add up so you spend another 500-600 words trying to rationalize it away. Nice try…

  15. Cara Waits3 years ago

    What? This is one of the more ridiculous studies/polls I have seen.