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Why is the United States becoming more partisan?

New Pew poll shows the political divide is more extreme than at any time in the past 20 years

According to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in 1994, 10 percent of Americans were "consistently conservative" or "consistently liberal." That number has more than doubled today to 21 percent. 

And what does the middle look like? It’s shrinking. In 1994, 49 percent of Americans had “mixed” views. Today it’s 39 percent.

It’s important to point out that the largest group of Americans are still in the "mixed middle," but usually it's the partisans who are the most politically active.

These numbers show our politics are getting more polarized and, as a result, nastier.

Twenty years ago, 17 percent of Republicans had “unfavorable” views of Democrats, and 16 percent of Democrats had “unfavorable” views of Republicans.

Those numbers have jumped to 43 percent and 39 percent today.

So do redder reds and bluer blues “threaten” the well-being of the country?

The poll used that word: threaten. More than 1 out of 3 Republicans think so. More than 1 out of every 4 Democrats do too.

Can the partisans and the politicians they support come together to solve problems? The numbers point to why this is so tough.

The majority of partisans believe that their side should get the better end of the deal. It’s the opposite of compromise. It’s gridlock.

Why has the partisan divide widened?

If most Americans are in the “middle,” why do partisans drive the political debate?

How does political ideology affect decisions about where Americans live?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Michael Dimock

Michael Dimock is the lead author of the new Pew study “Political Polarization in the American Public.” He is also vice president of research at the Pew Research Center. He is principally responsible for questionnaire design, project management, the analysis of polling data and the presentation of survey results. He plays a central role in writing reports and providing information to news organizations and others interested in polling and data analysis.

Inside Story: What most surprised you about this study?

Michael Dimock: I am not sure I am so surprised about the degree of polarization, but one thing was the extent of the reach of politics in people’s lives, such as where they live, and even what they do with their families. That suggests that politics goes beyond the voting booth and seeps into the fabric of our lives.

Any sense of why we have become more polarized?

It does speak to this question of the environments in which we live and how political and personal preferences may be aligned in certain ways. What we do not really address is the broader informational environment. Is media involved in this? Is social media involved in this? We are trying to unpack whether the polarization in Congress is bottom-up, reflecting the divisions in the public, or whether there is something about the way politics is being conducted at the elite level that is influencing how people feel personally.

You mentioned that partisan politics is reflected in lifestyle choices. Examples?

There has been a big discussion out there about whether liberals and conservatives are increasingly living in separate worlds. There is evidence that there may be some truth to that. When we ask people if they would prefer to live in a place where houses are bigger but stores are further apart, or a community with smaller houses but stores are closer together and the neighborhood is more walkable, the vast majority of conservatives would prefer the former, and liberals the latter. You see a similar phenomenon when you talk about living in cities versus living in rural areas and small towns. Liberals prefer cities and conservatives prefer small towns and rural areas. There seems to be a sense that politics is entwined with a sense of place.

Only one-quarter of Americans care to live in an area where people have the same politics. But that is true of half of conservatives and one-third of consistent liberals. That raises questions of siloing, which creates communities in which people feel their values reinforced by other people, similar to the media they consume.

Inside Story: A third of Republicans see the Democratic Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being, and 27 percent of Democrats feel that way about Republicans. Aren’t these stark numbers?

Alan Abramowitz: The more ideologically consistent the voters are, the more they tend to dislike the other party. The Republicans tend to feel more antagonistic and strongly that Democrats are ruining the country. That may reflect the fact that there is a Democratic president, and that Democrats are more willing to compromise to achieve policy victories.

There is a parallel debate among academics about asymmetric polarization. That debate focuses on whether both sides are polarized, or Republicans have become more conservative. At the congressional level, there is no question that Republicans, particularly in the House, are more conservative than they were 30 years ago. Democrats are also more liberal, but that is mostly due to the loss of the conservative Southern wing.

Why did this all happen?

My view is that it reflects a combination of changes in American society that go back to the 1960s, and the response of political leaders to those changes as they have tried to construct responses to cater to their electoral coalitions. One key to this is the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the population. As that has happened, especially since the 1980s and 1990s, we have seen it have a very different impact on both parties. Democrats increasingly rely on the votes of racial minorities, and Republicans have become whiter. Racially conservative Democrats, in the South especially, but everywhere, have become Republican. In addition, the increasing secularization of America has provoked a backlash by socially conservative elements of society.

Inside Story: Are these new Pew poll findings stark?

Morris Fiorina: No, not necessarily. I happen to believe that the programs of both parties are threats to the future of the country. That does not mean I am extreme or that I hate those two parties. This is a good report on party sorting. Instead of calling it political polarization, they should have called it party sorting, which is definitely the case. It reflects the difficulties of politics in this country.

If you look at the partisan distribution in this country, the affiliations with parties, the ideological affiliations and the intensity of people’s views on particular issues, not much has changed. What has changed is that there is no longer a liberal wing of the Republican Party or a large conservative wing of the Democratic Party. People are identifying with their parties much more consistently along ideological lines.


The study also notes that people of different political views make vastly different lifestyle choices.

Yes, that is absolutely true. The Democratic coalition used to be the urban North and rural South. Now it is much more sorted: Democrats are much more urban; Republicans much more suburban and rural. But here is the critical difference: There are no fewer independents, moderates and centrists than there were 30 or 40 years ago. 

Is extreme polarization bad for our political system?

It is inherently bad. But those in the media have to realize how little most Americans care about politics. It is true that the big concern I have is that those who do care are exactly the ones who show up in primaries and give money in campaigns, exerting disproportionate influence. That is something we have known for 60 to 70 years. 

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