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Yes, we’re more polarized — but most Americans still don’t fit the description

More and more respondents tell Pew that their friends and neighbors share their political views.

The Pew Research Center is out with its latest, smartest — and biggest ever — analysis of the growing partisan and ideological  polarization of Americans. Pew’s own long summary of the findings is here. I highly recommend it. But I also urge you to keep an eye on forest-and-tree issues. The summary begins:

Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.

For us, the politically obsessed, this is undoubtedly true. We see fresh evidence of its every day as we consume political news. The gridlock in Washington is substantially related to this growing polarization. From the summary report:

The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%.

That’s a tall tree, and growing steadily taller. But don’t forget to notice that the forest — the other 79 percent of the population — do not fit this description.

From the summary:

In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Thirty-six percent of those whom Pew classifies as Republicans say that the views of Democrats “are a threat to the nation’s well-being,” and 27 percent of Democrats say that about the views of Republicans.

Pew has been tracking partisan polarization for years, but this question about “threat to the nation’s well-being” is a new one, so we don’t know the trend. Still, it’s probably unhelpful to the overall experiment in self-government when a large number of Americans view those who disagree with them as a “threat.” Nonetheless, as bad as this level of partisan disdain for the other side sounds, it is still nowhere near a majority view.

More and more respondents tell Pew that their friends and neighbors share their political views, a continuation of the trend that author and journalist Bill Bishop called “The Big Sort.” More and more respondents give answers suggesting that their idea of a compromise in Washington would be for the other side to cave and give the respondent’s own side everything it is demanding on policy.

But — and I’ll stop doing this now — this view that one’s own side should get everything it wants in a political compromise is far from a majority view in the country. Predictably, this view is most common among those with strong liberal or conservative policy preferences (and yes, it’s more common among those with strong conservative views). But among all respondents, the most common answer to the compromise question is that each side should get somewhere near 50 percent of what it wants.

To summarize in my own words: The tendency of Democrats to be strong, consistent liberals is growing, as is the tendency of Republicans to be strong, consistent conservatives. People who hold views are more likely to vote, more likely to demonize the views of the “other side,” more likely blame the other side for gridlock, less likely to want to compromise. These tendencies have been growing for years. But most Americans are not nearly as consumed by news and politics as the readers of this post and much less likely to share the tendencies summarized in this paragraph.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/12/2014 - 10:39 am.

    I struggle with the idea that the following are particularly liberal takes on issues:

    **Government often does a better job than people give it credit for.

    **Government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest

    **Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents

    **Good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace

    Pretty weak “liberal” positions.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/12/2014 - 12:06 pm.

      These days

      In the U S of A, at least, ‘Liberal’ has come to mean only slightly right of center (Progressives are slightly left of center). Conservatives are way right.
      The last significant American politicians to espouse classic Liberalism were Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold.
      Nixon would be a liberal today.
      We have no significant liberal parties in the European sense.

    • Submitted by jody rooney on 06/13/2014 - 01:52 pm.

      What you have stated are broadbrush statements but

      take neither liberal of conservative holders closer to solving any specific issues. These are talking points without substance. Ask for details when someone makes those statements.

      “Government often does a better job than people give it credit for” – Which part of government? Better than what? What do we have to compare it to, business? We don’t now how business does nor how it would do without government subsidies.

      “Government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest” Again to specific. Which part of government regulation, product safety, patent enforcement, monopoly enforcement, minimum wage, environmental. Most of the regulation is the cost of doing business. In general the government doesn’t help businesses succeed or fail they just announce the rules under which the game is played.

      “Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their had work and talents” Basically they are now just a different color but they are like all immigrants who have ever come to this country, some do some don’t.

      “Good diplomacy is the best way to insure peace” This one I struggle with. But mostly I struggle with a preference for isolationism vs. activism on the world stage.

      Anyone making the statements above hasn’t really thought about anything. They are just spouting something vague and it happens on both sides of the political spectrum.

      I still have to ponder the up roar of Benghazi. That was three people, how many went to Iraq and didn’t come home the same.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/12/2014 - 10:40 am.

    Yin and Yang

    Indeed, the tendency toward polarization is evident – Pew or no pew – to people who pay attention to politics and policy discussions. To the degree that ideologues of left and/or right shape the discussion, that influence can easily be seen as either a good or a bad thing.

    That said, and I tend to be among the 79% who don’t view compromise as the devil’s spawn, if 79% of the population is aware of the positions of those on both left and right, and they favor something in the middle, or at least closer to the middle, then compromise – and functioning government – still seems possible.

    If, on the other hand, the 79% are simply unaware – they have no idea what Fox News says, or MSNBC, or plug in whatever network(s) you’re inclined to favor and/or despise in terms of their news coverage – then we’re dealing with a problem. Democracy can’t work if the vast majority of the voting population doesn’t understand the debate, or is something close to being totally uninformed about a particular issue, or even a whole slate of issues. I don’t think political “obsession” is required to be a politically-engaged citizen, and politically-engaged citizens are what’s required to keep a democratic society functioning as it was, I presume, intended.

    I’ve seen the line attributed to Pericles in classical Athens, but regardless of its originator, I’d argue that it still applies: “The man [or woman, I’ll add] who has no interest in politics has no business here.”

  3. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 06/12/2014 - 11:23 am.

    It’s Not Necessarily The %s That Matter

    It’s who makes their voices heard.

    The common refrain in representative democracy is that the world belongs to those who show up. Well guess who tends to show up the most and are the most boisterous? Those whose beliefs, as identified by this Pew study, are more towards the far left or far right.

    Those who are in the “middle” (what ever that truly means), can wring our hands and bemoan the condition of our democracy all we want, but it we want to make a difference, yet refuse to participate, then we really do get what we vote–or don’t–for.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/12/2014 - 12:15 pm.

    From Andrew Sullivan…Look:

    From Andrew Sullivan

    …Look: I know I may be a total sucker for even hoping to see some semblance of fairness and balance on Fox. But it’s still shocking to see programming designed not to uncover reality, but to create a reality in which no counter-arguments are ever considered, and in which hysteria is the constant norm. MSNBC is almost as bad, of course, but with CNN as the new Discovery Channel, the entire possibility of a balanced newscast has disappeared from cable – and from the lives of most Americans. Again, this is not new. But as it continues, it intensifies. And as it intensifies, the possibility of governing all of the country recedes into the distance.

    This is a civil war without violence. And we are two countries now.

    • Submitted by Lance Groth on 06/12/2014 - 01:59 pm.


      Try al-Jazeera America. I gave up on CNN a year ago and switched to “ajam”. They practice old school journalism, honest to goodness news, with the added benefit that they actually report what’s going on around the world, outside of the American bubble. Very refreshing. The reporters aren’t all bottle-blondes, either.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/12/2014 - 01:33 pm.

    I have to say..

    The polarization doesn’t actually bother me, that will resolve over time. If you look closely what you see is that the nation as a whole is slowly shifting to the left, 34% consistently liberal vs. 27% conservative and the middle is leaning leftwards as well. This means eventually we’ll overcome republican obstructionism, solve problems, and eventually resolve differences. This kind of drifts into an article round here a while back about the US drifting towards social democracy. As republicans lose power and elections they’ll moderate and the polarization will decrease. Sooner or later they have to get tired of being wrong all the time.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/12/2014 - 03:15 pm.

      The problem is

      that those numbers don’t necessarily translate to election victories.
      For example, and overall majority of Democratic votes for house seats didn’t translate into a Democratic House in 2012.
      As long as voters are gerrymandered into ‘safe’ districts we will still have majority rule. And yes it can cut both ways, but right now Republications seem to be better at the game.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/12/2014 - 10:13 pm.


        However, Republicans lost to Obama twice, lost the Senate, and lost the State of MN despite all the gerrymandering. And taking the House in 2012 would have been beyond remarkable. I think Republicans will loose even more ground this time around.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/12/2014 - 05:11 pm.

      I don’t know where you got those numbers

      but here’s Gallup’s:

      “Conservatism is still the dominant ideology in the U.S. when Americans are asked to describe their political views overall and when asked about their views on economic and social issues separately. However, the conservative advantages are shrinking, in large part because of Democrats’ increasing likelihood of describing their views as liberal rather than conservative or moderate.

      Conservatives maintain a healthy advantage on economic issues, so if more Americans ever do come to view themselves as economic liberals than as economic conservatives, it would not be anytime soon.”

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/13/2014 - 09:41 am.

        The actual numbers from your citation:

        “Currently, 34% of Americans say they are conservative, 35% say moderate, and 30% say liberal on social issues. On economic issues, 42% say they are conservative, 34% say moderate, and 21% say liberal.”
        The question is whether most Americans vote primarily on economic issues. Conservatives hope so; the evidence isn’t clear.

        Looking at your statement more directly, 42% of Americans say that they are conservative on economic issues; 55% say that they are moderate or liberal. That’s hardly conservative domination, since few moderates vote for conservatives.

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