Chamber Executive Article Archive

A Polarized America Lives as It Votes

By Charles Babington

Fall 2014

In a groundbreaking survey, the Pew Research Center finds that Republicans and Democrats are more divided now than at any point in two decades—and that the divisions aren’t limited to the ballot box. 

Partisan gridlock, an all-too-familiar theme in U.S. politics, is typically described in anecdotal terms. Now the Pew Research Center has produced an extensive survey of Americans’ ideologies and attitudes that shows just how strikingly polarized our society has become in nearly all facets of life, not just government and politics.

The survey reveals that as the ideological center shrinks, Americans have grown more fervently liberal on the left and more ardently conservative on the right. The most politically engaged people are the ones most likely to oppose compromise, which is essential in a democracy. Substantial numbers of Americans want to live near and associate with people who think and believe like they do. Many oppose the idea of a close relative marrying someone from the “other” political party.

Perhaps most alarming, the survey finds that, among Democrats and Republicans alike, the most politically engaged Americans see the “other party” as worse than simply wrongheaded or misguided. “Partisan animosity has increased substantially,” the report says. “The share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.’ ”

The findings come from the largest study of U.S. political attitudes ever undertaken by the Pew Research Center via a telephone survey of 10,013 adults nationwide from January through March.

Respondents were asked, among other things, 10 “political values” questions that Pew has tracked since 1994. The study’s scope is striking, surveying about 10 times as many people as does a typical poll.

Fully half of the 10,000 people surveyed by phone have agreed to answer follow-up questions online at least through 2014, allowing the center to probe further into the causes of polarization.

The survey is helping to quantify what has become the defining theme of American politics in the past two decades. The Pew Research Center has examined political polarization for a number of years but decided it was time for deeper analysis. The center, which does not advocate solutions to policy issues, has become a trusted source of survey data that is respected across the political spectrum and is now well into a year-long study with support from William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (see Trust, Fall 2013), the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and Don C. and Jeane Bertsch.

The survey helps explain why Congress often seems paralyzed, unable to handle once-routine tasks—such as enacting annual budgets for the major federal agencies or raising the debt ceiling to avoid default—without first bringing the nation to the brink of economic calamity.

Among the key findings: Americans have become more strongly liberal or conservative in their views. This is especially true among the most politically engaged, who are likeliest to vote in Republican and Democratic primaries. As was welldocumented before the survey, so many U.S. House districts and states are now either overwhelmingly conservative or overwhelmingly liberal that the primary elections pose the only real threat for most lawmakers to be ousted.

That’s why a congressional Democrat’s survival instinct is to veer hard left, and a Republican’s instinct is to veer hard right. The center, where compromises are forged, is increasingly lonely.

“The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, from 10 percent to 21 percent,” the survey finds. Moreover, “ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.”

Of course, some Americans remain near the political middle. However, the survey finds, “many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged.” Meanwhile, “the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.”

Americans appear increasingly likely to talk past each other—or simply to miscomprehend one another—instead of engaging in true debate.

“ ‘Ideological silos’ are now common on both the left and right,” the report says. “People with down-the-line ideological positions—especially conservatives—are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. … And at a time of increasing gridlock on Capitol Hill, many on both the left and the right think the outcome of political negotiations between [President Barack] Obama and Republican leaders should be that their side gets more of what it wants.”

As a reporter covering Congress, I find that this notion of “ideological silos” comports with what I’ve seen in my years on Capitol Hill. I often talk with House members—Republicans and Democrats—who seem bewildered by the priorities or concerns of colleagues from the other party. My sense is that aides, relatives, and associates of a typical GOP lawmaker watch Fox News almost exclusively and listen to radio commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham when driving. Democrats’ offices and associates tune to MSNBC and read editorials from The New York Times, not The Wall Street Journal.

And the polarization extends far beyond Washington, with divisions that are not just about politics. “Those on the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum,” the survey finds, “disagree about everything from the type of community in which they prefer to live to the type of people they would welcome into their families.”

Three-quarters of “consistent conservatives” prefer communities where “the houses are larger and farther apart” and “stores and restaurants are several miles away.” And “the preferences of consistent liberals are almost the exact inverse,” the report says, “with 77 percent preferring the smaller house closer to amenities.” More than three times as many consistent liberals as consistent conservatives “rate proximity to museums and galleries as important.”

These intriguing findings help explain why Americans “selfgerrymander,” as some political scientists put it. Before partisan lawmakers even start drawing legislative district maps, millions of liberals have packed themselves into urban areas, and millions of conservatives have moved to rural and exurban regions.

“If people living in ‘deep red’ or ‘deep blue’ America feel like they inhabit distinctly different worlds,” the Pew survey concludes, “it is in part because they seek out different types of communities, both geographic and social.”

Congressional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution calls the survey “a gold mine of insights into how the sharp partisan polarization, so pronounced in Congress and among political elites, has penetrated the broader public.” That’s not to say that Mann and other experts agree with every conclusion. He and his frequent co-author, Norman Ornstein, contend that conservatives and Republicans play a substantially bigger role in partisan gridlock than do liberals and Democrats. They highlight nuggets from the report such as this: 82 percent of consistent liberals prefer leaders who compromise, while only 32 percent of consistent conservatives want leaders who compromise.

Commentators who blame polarization more equally on both sides, meanwhile, emphasize report findings such as this: “The share of Democrats who are liberal on all or most value dimensions has nearly doubled, from just 30 percent in 1994 to 56 percent today.” The share that is consistently liberal has quadrupled. Although the rightward shift of Republicans during those 20 years is less dramatic, the report says, “the GOP ideological shift over the past decade has matched, if not exceeded, the rate at which Democrats have become more liberal.”

Carroll Doherty, director of political research for the Pew Research Center, said it’s clear that Americans have become more firmly ideological on the left and right. However, he said, “partisan antipathy is more pronounced on the right.”

He says the overall findings are sobering. “The results may be more discouraging than we thought,” he says. “From how polarization manifests itself in our personal lives to its effects on policymaking to the way it shows up even in our political participation, the numbers are telling.”

To learn more, read the full report at polarization.


Charles Babington covers Congress and politics for the Associated Press. He has reported from Washington since 1987 and is a frequent panelist on PBS’s “Washington Week.”


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