Is America dangerously divided?
June 15th, 2014
03:41 AM ET

Is America dangerously divided?

By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.

If you thought that political polarization in America was bad, think again. Because it’s worse than you thought. And if you’re under the impression that dysfunctionality in Washington is merely a product of partisan political gamesmanship on Capitol Hill, try again. Because a new survey finds that the divisions inside the Beltway actually reflect a deep ideological divide within the U.S. public that manifests itself not only in politics, but in everyday life. Indeed, this polarization is growing – and it has profound implications for economic and security issues that affect the rest of the world.

Republicans and Democrats in the United States are more divided along ideological lines, and the resulting political acrimony is deeper and more extensive, than at any point in recent U.S. history, according to the Pew Research Center survey. And such partisanship is having a greater impact on policy because these partisans make up a larger share of the politically engaged members of their parties.

The share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions on a range of issues – on the size and scope of government, the environment, foreign policy, among others – has doubled over the past two decades, from 10 percent to 21 percent. And this shift isn’t just about one party – Democrats have been moving to the left and Republicans have moved to the right. As a result, now roughly one-in-five Americans hold either strongly liberal or strongly conservative views. Meanwhile, the percentage of the American public that takes a liberal stance on some issues and a conservative one on others has fallen from half in 1994 to 39 percent today.

This recent polarization has taken on an unprecedented personal element. Sure, Democrats and Republicans haven’t always liked each other. But today the feelings appear far more hostile. For example, 36 percent of Republicans say the Democratic Party is a threat to the well-being of the country, while just over a quarter of Democrats see the GOP as a threat to the nation.

Moreover, many Democrats and Republicans today don’t even want to associate with each other. More than six-in-ten of consistent conservatives and about half of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views. People on the right and the left also say it is important to them to live in a place where most people have similar political sentiments. And three-out-of-ten consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat (compared with almost a quarter of across-the-board liberals who voice the same concern about the prospect of a Republican in-law).

Such partisans are increasingly active in their respective parties. In 1994, just 8 percent of politically-engaged Democrats were consistent liberals. In 2014, these strong liberals made up 38 percent of party activists. Similarly, 20 years ago consistent conservatives accounted for just under a quarter of politically-engaged Republicans. Today they represent one-third.

Needless to say, such partisanship complicates political deal-making. When asked about compromise on the most important issues facing the country, consistent conservatives say that congressional Republicans should get two-thirds of whatever they want and that the White House should get only one-third. Consistent liberals are no more conciliatory: 62 percent say that in any deal between Congressional Republicans and President Obama, the White House should get two-thirds of what it wants, while the GOP should only get one-third.

Such partisanship would be political theater for the rest of the world if it didn’t have such serious policy consequences.

For a start, there’s no doubt that Republicans and Democrats typically take broadly differing stances on major international issues. Among the American public, for example, Democrats are more supportive than Republicans of both a free trade agreement with Europe (60 percent to 44 percent) and a free trade agreement with Japan and other countries around the Pacific (59 percent to 49 percent). Republicans are for their part more sympathetic to Israel than are Democrats, while Democrats are more opposed to the U.S. getting involved in the Ukraine than are Republicans. All this suggests that finding compromise will be almost as tricky on foreign policy as it is on domestic.

True, political differences are a fact of life in any country. But a deepening ideological uniformity and partisan animosity in both politics and everyday life challenges one of the premises of a functioning democracy: the ability to make decisions through compromise. The political partisanship now evident in the United States is not politics as usual. It is something different. And we should all be watching it very closely.

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Topics: Politics • United States

soundoff (808 Responses)
  1. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    Is America dangerously divided? Yes it is for the simple that their are people who think and see things objectively and those who either ca't or don't think at all! The latter believes everything that the politicians in Washington say!

    June 15, 2014 at 6:02 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      Not written by me,
      Joey (JIF)

      June 15, 2014 at 7:08 am | Reply
    • youdontknowsquatson

      I love how Joey made that post at 6:02 with no target named but the liberal commenters automatically assume he was talking about them. I guess if it walks like a duck......

      June 15, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Reply
  2. George Patton

    Good grief faux Joey. You must be a fan of Sarah Palin. What Tea Party lingo! Is it a crime to believe SOME of our congressional leaders some of the time? Politics is not always a dirty word.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:35 am | Reply
    • obama

      bull**** politics are always dirty

      June 15, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Reply
  3. banasy

    You know what gets my goat, George? We as a nation are sometimes polarized, that is an indisputable fact. Then you have that bozo at 6:02 spewing off all his anti-American mumble jumble. Can you believe that Tea Partier? According to him, Americans aren't able to think for themselves and take Washington for their every word. The audicity!
    This clown has got to go! It's as simple as that!

    June 15, 2014 at 6:48 am | Reply
    • banasy©

      I would never write such a simplistic and hyperbolic post.
      Please refrain from using my name for such purposes.

      June 15, 2014 at 11:42 am | Reply
  4. greg

    @banasy. You got that one right on the money. And how! I would add banasy, that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and Mr. Obama are some of America's greatest leaders. Let's not forget, they work from Washington. And yes, they are politicians. Master politicians. They rose this country to great heights.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:54 am | Reply
    • Chuck're comparing JFK and Obama to Washington and Lincoln?

      George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were probably the two greatest leaders in our country's history. Nothing JFK or Obama has done compares to what these two great men accomplished for our country.

      June 15, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Reply
    • Piroko

      Obama will not be remembered as a great president.

      Depending on how things play out in his last two years he'll be remembered as another Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, or Jimmy Carter. He can't even control his own administration let alone his party's congressional delegation. His foreign policy is feckless at best, he's sheltering members of both the IRS and the VA from prosecution, and he traded five enemy combatants to secure the release of a traitor.

      June 15, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Reply
      • Thunderkitten

        He will be remembered for his healthcare reform that, despite the constant railing against the fact, has turned out to be a a major success and will help not only this but future generations. Unless some crackpot gets elected as the fringe becomes the norm and commits political suicide by dismantling it.

        June 16, 2014 at 1:47 am |
  5. Peter mabas

    Politics is all about consencus and responsible compromise for the good of the entirety of those on whose behalf those decisions are taking, any deviation from the wholesome principles of democracy, freedom and self determination becomes autocratic and totalitarian.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:59 am | Reply
    • banasy

      Exactly Peter. I agree totally. Least we forget, it was Henry Clay that went down in history as The Great Compromiser, which further proves your point.
      Good post, thank you.

      June 15, 2014 at 7:07 am | Reply
      • banasy©

        Not I.

        June 15, 2014 at 11:42 am |
    • Patrick

      How true Joseph. How true. This really is not the forum for that dirty mouth, Sarah Palin fan at 6:02

      June 15, 2014 at 7:13 am | Reply
  6. Joseph McCarthy

    George, banasy, greg, good morning. I have tried diligently to find the slightest error in your way of thinking. But you know what? There is none. You three are true Americans unlike that joker at 6:02 with his unAmerican rants. It just makes you wonder, how was this individual raised as a child. Was he neglected? Is he uneducated? You have to feel sorry for this little name thief.
    God bless America. The land of opportunity.

    June 15, 2014 at 7:02 am | Reply
    • Bill Marvel

      I must have missed the anti-American "dirty" comments at 6:02. There was one fellow who suggested that to believe everything that comes out of Washington was perhaps contrary to good citizenship. But, boy! Haven't we all learned that by now, both Left and Right and those of us in between.
      I grew up in the 1940s and '50s, in the warm glow of bipartisanship left over from World War iI but soon shattered by another Joseph McCarthy and his friends. As I began to read history seriously, I realized I had been living on an island of calm in American political life and that polarization, even sometimes murderous polarization, was the more usual condition.
      This has nothing to do with reasoned political debate and everything to do with hubris, preening narcissism, and the kind of blind ideology that supposes that there is some pure Platonic realm in which every political question is answered and only we, and those Who Think Like Us, have found it.
      Those who - incorrectly - toss around "liberal" and "conservative' as though they understand the history and meaning of those terms, need to curb their tongues and open their minds. The notion that the "Truth" resides exclusively on the Left or the Right is too absurd to be entertained by a serious mind.

      June 15, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  7. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    The USA is absurdly polarized.
    Frequently, someone asks me how I can have a conservative view on one issue, usually one concerning economic systems, and a very liberal view on social issues.
    I wish that each USA citizen would try to think for himself for fifteen minutes a day.
    The racial polarization of this nation is astounding. Stupid citizens make it worse every day.
    Democrats and Republicans could compromise more easily in the past because they did not have to send simplistic and extreme messages to attract ignorant voters.

    June 15, 2014 at 7:24 am | Reply
    • banasy©

      100% accurate.

      June 15, 2014 at 11:44 am | Reply
    • Allan Kinsman

      Well said. The failure of a system is two fold. One you must belong to one of the parties to get on a ticket, mostly. Then you must raise monies to blast away at the consciousness of the voters about issues which mean nothing as far as principle. But the voter thinks this dribble is important and is convinced they represent something "real". If you think about it a brilliant way to eat away at a system once filled with great ideas moved with principle and integrity.

      June 15, 2014 at 11:54 am | Reply
  8. jeff

    One reason for this polarization is there's a president who has created an environment of division. The Democratic Party wrote the book on divide and conquer politics. I can hear the typical response from the other side claiming the Republicans do the same. The Democratic Party divides people in groups, engages in fraud during elections, and accuses the other side of doing the what Democrats engage in daily.

    June 15, 2014 at 8:02 am | Reply
    • banasy©

      Your "us versus them" attitude captures what the author was talking about perfectly.
      Thank you for providing an example.

      June 15, 2014 at 11:47 am | Reply
    • AtlJack

      You have your history wrong. Pat Buchanan went to Richard Nixon and said: "Mr. President. We can spilt the country into two pieces and we can pick up the bigger piece."

      June 15, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Reply
    • Bill Marvel

      Not a serious student of history are you, Jeff?

      June 15, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  9. Allan Kinsman

    America has suffered from a lack of reason since we came together as a nation. The problem arises because of belief systems which impact the individual perspective. We fail to see a fundamental issue. Politicians use polerizing issues to keep Washington frozen all the while those buying favors move forward gaining advantage. Our foreign policy, domestic policy, no energy policy in fact all lack of policy can be attributed to this method. Conservative and liberal points of view think they are being represeted all the while the republic sinks under the weight of greed and selfishness.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:00 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

      Well put, Allan. Thank you.

      June 15, 2014 at 11:16 am | Reply
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        I did not write that.
        At one time, conservative and liberal points of view were not as far apart as they are now, for most citizens.
        Please stop hijacking me.

        June 15, 2014 at 3:00 pm |
    • Bill Marvel

      George Washington warned of the dangers of partisanship. And within a few years, the founding fathers had forgotten compromise for the common good and fallen into political bickering. Then John Adams gave us the Alien and Sedition Act...

      June 15, 2014 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  10. bobcat2u

    If people would just slow down for a moment and take a realistic look at themselves, they would see that we share a commonality on the issues of conservatism / liberalism. On some issues, such as finances, many of us are very conservative. When it comes to matters of personal freedoms, most of us are very liberal So what's the problem here ? What truly is separating the masses is Ideology. Many people have obviously lost the ability to think for themselves, choosing instead to follow the crowd because that is the popular thing to do. God forbid that you should disagree with anyone in your circle. Why, doing that would make you a pariah with your in-crowd. After all, it's much more important to be popular than an independent thinker.
    Get over yourselves people. Try following what your common sense tells you is right, and not what "they" tell you is right.

    June 15, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Reply
    • You_No

      And who told you that "common sense" was a good idea? "Common sense" of 2007 was buying another McMansion to flip so you could afford your new Escalade.
      Lost the ability? Simply weren't taught, because it is more "important" to have emotional understanding than logical. Logic couldn't possibly recognize emotion. Thank progressives, thank feminists, or thank big business, whatever. The ability to methodically investigate a point of discussion (what your great-great grandparents learned in Grade School as Rhetoric) has long since been abandoned in "public education."
      "Progress" requires that you know less and less about the few who determine more and more for your own good. Get over it and get back on those planes!

      June 15, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  11. chri§§y

    Happy daddys day @ bobcat!!!

    June 15, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      Thank you chrissy. And you know, they really should change the name to Daddy Day. The term FATHER can entail anything from a deadbeat to a priest. The DADS of the world are the ones who should be honored. That's the "special" part of fatherhood.

      June 15, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  12. chri§§y

    Lmao!Thats so very true @ bobcat! Same thing with Mothers day but of course i CANT say exactly what "other" mothers" day it could be lol. I CAN say it doesnt necessarily be a female mother lmao!

    June 15, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      Well maybe they should initiate a MUTHAS day, 'cause there are a whole lot of them too.

      June 15, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  13. MrrVlad

    What's more worrisome is that extreme statements come in a package, so you can't split say "abortions" from "budget". If I do have separate opinion on what is a good set of policies for this country, it can't be represented, since half of what each side wants is stupid for me and I can't pick one.

    June 15, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  14. Rex

    The US is completely divided because that is what our society desires. Since the mid-20th century, society and eventually the government has constantly promoted diversity of thought and morales, and has accomplished a completely relativistic thinking on all things, be it religion, education, morals, and on an on. No one way of thinking can be right, if they are all right (or wrong). Why would we think that our politics and policies, either domestic or foreign, would be with a consistent voice? We have championed a widely diverse culture, and that is what we have become.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Reply
    • RLR

      Diversity in America is reality and being shoved down our throats in so many ways can ASK me to believe but you can't FORCE me to...

      June 15, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Reply
      • penel9

        Enough said, RLR. Thanks.

        June 15, 2014 at 4:44 pm |
  15. lunaeros

    From what I've seen it comes from the conservatives moving farther and farther right and becoming more hostile and refusing to even debate most of the time that is making the liberals increasingly hostile.
    I think the conservatives are getting this way because they see the country moving more left than right and viewing it as a move away from their moral views which, more than not, are rooted in religion.
    Their view is wrong. Just because the country is moving away from the religions, organized ones in particular, does not mean they're moving away from morals.
    If they kept an open mind and debated what they don't like with the left then the polarization and hostility would decrease.

    But it's the same thing with animals. When they see the end on the horizon is when they fight the hardest.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  16. nytw

    Yes, because libels are determined to destroy America and conservatives are trying to save America.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  17. Karen

    So much of it comes back to people wanting to push their religious beliefs onto others.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  18. Kiefmo

    There is a certain irony in the fact that CNN which is one of the major causes of the division is lamenting it. The reason is that the so called news media is actually in the advertising business. They don't sell news, they sell commercial time. In order to get people to watch their programs containing the money generating commercials, they need to create excitement. Logical discourse of any kind (and political in particular) can be mind numbing to the unwashed masses. As a result, none of the major networks are going to discuss issues logically. Instead they will present wingnuts from both the right and left and let the fireworks begin. It is not surprising then that when all you ever hear is the extreme postions that people will be moved closer to the poles. The wonks will watch CSPAN; the HoneyBooBoo crowd will watch the news channels.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Reply
    • Jocho Johnson

      Well said. This is the opinion of the silent majority, who need to stop being so silent.

      June 15, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Reply
    • Javari Nama

      Agreed and CNN is Jewish.

      June 15, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Reply
    • goersfour

      Very well stated. So this really comes down to money. I personally limit my news to 5 min a day. Main thing I need to know is if there has been an event that will affect me directly that day. All the other "news" is hype.

      June 16, 2014 at 8:18 am | Reply
  19. Larry L

    The division of Americans was required for the Republican party to survive. The top rung of the U.S. income ladder needs a political party to represent their narrowly-focused economic goals. Their corporatist viewpoint is of little interest to those in the lower 90% bracket. But the demographics of the radical right-wing offered real opportunity to strategists like Karl Rove. This mostly white, xenophobic, and too often racist group was especially fearful after the 2008 election. If fat-cat Republicans could create and exploit issues associated with "gays, guns and god" they could develop a reliable population of voters without actually making any substantial sacrifices of wealth. Their real issues (anti-environmental regulations, less control of the financial district, etc.) weren't even visible parts of the equation. This population of potential voters was especially eager to embrace conspiracies and distortions because their values system was in jeopardy and they "needed" validation. The Supreme Court rulings opened the door for investment by radical PACs on both extremes. The Republicans had an exceptionally strong asset with Fox News serving as the propaganda tool for the effort to exploit the gullible right-wing. As the super-PACs evolved with enormous negative marketing capabilities the Tea Party was created – quietly funded by PACs while even the zealots believed it to be a grass roots movement. The plan was brilliant but Republicans lost control. Imagine how old-school conservatives like Barry Goldwater would view Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin or Rand Paul.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Reply
  20. Catc

    Things got messed up on both sides when sheep-people put Party ahead of Country.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Reply
    • Catc


      June 15, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Reply
      • Thunderkitten

        Sheeple, just shorten it to sheeple. It rolls off the tongue (and the keyboard) easier.

        June 16, 2014 at 2:02 am |
  21. manicdrummer

    Yep, it's just a matter of time before the US has another civil war. Liberals and conservatives hate each other now more than ever. And the more extreme they become, the more dangerous.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  22. aspblom

    Social science is very clear on the fact that as diversity goes up, trust and co-operation go down. And various elements of society have pushed hard to increase the diversity with parallel cultures.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  23. James Russle

    I came to this article for the tolerant left suggesting we mend this divide by destroying the right or at least silencing their voices and I did not leave disappointed.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  24. Jocho Johnson

    We're divided on the trivial issues Washington uses to stay in power. I believe most of us would like to see a non interventionist foreign policy where our tax dollars are spent domestically.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  25. John in AZ

    Republicans AND Democrats? What a crock...there is only one side that is driving this...and it is the Republicans. And yes, I say this with no irony...look at who is willing to cross the aisle in DC, look at who is attempting to impose their beliefs on whom, who uses charged rhetoric on the news and the Internet? It's only one side doing that.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Reply
    • Jocho Johnson

      Why do you keep voting for McCain

      June 15, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  26. Jocho Johnson

    If it's all about the economy stupid the majority of us ought to have more common ground politically than we do, and that is by design of the Washington elites of both parties to stay in power.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  27. HJA

    All of our news is controlled. All news is run by large corporations who decide what news to "print" and what to ignore. If you compare the different "news" providers you see they run only what follows their agenda. Even when a story is run on different media outlets each will have a different take / spin on the story. The days of Walter Cronkite are long gone.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  28. Javari Nama

    It's this simple. The Jewish media did this on purpose because while the rest of us argue they rob us via the Federal Reserve and kosher taxes on prepackaged products in every grocery store. Boycott Israel and code 729. Politicians don't care about race at all. They use the phony construct to keep Americans blaming each other for their own shortcomings. It will never be solved by man because most people don't even recognize it as social engineering which it is. In short America is doomed. Israel is planning another false flag on America that will kill millions this time instead of 3000 like their 9/11 did.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:39 pm | Reply
    • Jocho Johnson

      da j00s want to eat your children

      June 15, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Reply
      • noone

        I hear they eat puppy dogs and kittens too.

        June 16, 2014 at 10:24 am |
    • bribarian

      There's some truth to that, but Americans fell for the game too.

      June 15, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  29. Cynthia

    This division has its root start back in the 1970's. Barry Goldwater warned the GOP about the dangers of extremists taking over the Party. BARRY...Mr. GOP, Conservative. It's interesting to consider how it became so ugly with the election of a Minority President. I know Liberals have become more involved, more vocal in recent years in response to the extreme views of the right/Tea Party. It was reading the rhetoric of the far right, their attempts to shut up any opposition that got me more involved.

    June 15, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  30. lintlicker

    Don't let it fool you we aren't divided by political parties , the truth is we're divided by " the rich " and The poor " .

    June 15, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Reply
    • Jocho Johnson

      Preach it

      June 15, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Reply
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