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 (806 Responses)
  1. smc

    Unfortunately, this article only looks at half the picture. While research has shown that political views on both "sides" have focused (e.g. people' viewpoints have now narrowed to more like their political peers), the other half of that research shows that those focused "conservative" viewpoints have and are continuing to take a hard shift to the extreme right, while those with "liberal" views haven't changed much over the last half century.

    June 16, 2014 at 7:04 am | Reply
  2. SeniorPerson

    Members of Congress of opposite parties years ago socialized with each and now that is unusual. The same thing is happening in where people decide to live. This has the starter ingredient for another Civil War in the USA, but the divide of states will not be identical if that happens.

    The only thing that can surely avoid this is an end to political campaigns of traded insults and greater involvement by average people who on practical matters are far less divided than on political philosophy. When Eric Cantor became the first Majority Leader in a century to lose re-election to the U. S. House, it was done by a majority of only 13.7% of voters giving effective control in this District Gerrymandered to be controlled consistently by one political party to only 6.85% of voters, and just how many populations don't have that many nut cases?

    June 16, 2014 at 7:06 am | Reply
    • Terry

      Funny that you call for cessation of name-calling and you end your post with "nut cases."

      June 16, 2014 at 8:21 am | Reply
    • rzanol300

      SeniorPerson you just invalidated everything you said by ending with name calling yourself. Where I come from that is called hypocrisy.

      June 16, 2014 at 8:39 am | Reply
      • CosmicC

        I didn't read his statement to be specific to either party. Rather it was an indictment of those who choose to sit out elections and allow the fringe elements of either party to rule.

        June 16, 2014 at 9:40 am |
  3. Time

    Term limits is the only way to stop this BS in Washington. This will get people in DC who want to SERVE the people of the USA....not their own power or pocket books. Just saying...I remain an American first not a party.

    June 16, 2014 at 7:08 am | Reply
    • snowdogg

      I don't disagree to term limits. However, the redrawing of political maps [gerrymandering] by both parties is a major factor also.

      June 16, 2014 at 7:13 am | Reply
    • M

      Term limits are definitely a start, but, more importantly, the huge influx of money into politics has to be reversed. The Citizens United decision must be undone by any means necessary. If we don't get the corrupting influence of all this money out of our political system, no other changes will be possible.

      June 16, 2014 at 8:43 am | Reply
  4. Floyd Schrodinger

    Just because you believe something doesn't make it true. Extremist on both sides need to be reigned in.

    June 16, 2014 at 7:16 am | Reply
  5. Jerry

    If you have to ask, you are wayyyyyyyyy too stupid! All this mostly thanks to 0-Bama, Bobble Head Pelosi, Senile Reid and most of my fellow Democrats!

    Shameful, shameful...

    June 16, 2014 at 7:20 am | Reply
    • Regressive

      This article is about people like you

      June 16, 2014 at 8:54 am | Reply
    • wendigarou

      You aren't a democrat, your post reeks of Tea.

      June 16, 2014 at 9:17 am | Reply
    • CosmicC

      No, actually, this dates back to Gingrich and the neocon movement of 20 years ago. They were the ones who intentionally decided not to compromise as part of their strategy.

      June 16, 2014 at 9:43 am | Reply
    • Gary Sutphin

      You're not a democrat.....come ON!

      June 16, 2014 at 9:45 am | Reply
  6. TrollExtraordinaire

    You simply can't compromise when one party is composed of communists who think that one man ramming his c*ck into another dude's a** is a "marriage."

    June 16, 2014 at 7:25 am | Reply
    • Liberalman

      I'm sure you consider yourself a "Christian" also.

      June 16, 2014 at 8:23 am | Reply
      • TrollExtraordinaire

        No, I'm a former Jew, now atheist.

        June 16, 2014 at 8:51 am |
    • ASDN

      You simply can't compromise when one party is composed of idiots like yourself.

      June 16, 2014 at 8:42 am | Reply
    • Gary Sutphin

      Very intelligent post. Too bad you're not required to put your real name to this kind of stuff.

      You're pathetic.

      June 16, 2014 at 9:48 am | Reply
  7. Jon

    If there's one thing we should all be able to come together on, it's that career politicians from both sides of the aisle are the lowest form of human life in this country. We've let two political parties go unchecked for far too long, and it's time we remind them who's actually supposed to run this nation.

    June 16, 2014 at 7:39 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      We "remind" politicians every time we vote. We DO run the nation.
      That's how democracy works.
      We get what we want.. it doesn't matter how stupid or lazy we are.

      June 16, 2014 at 7:55 am | Reply
  8. Dennis

    I find it definitively stupid to be so political, to the point of alienating others, including family. I have seen families torn apart by politics (poli meaning many and tics being blood sucking creatures). This is the problem of the United States. Nothing seems to unify us as a country. I don't base my friends list on politics, I base it on who they are. Consider this, President Reagan would be to moderate or dare I say, to liberal for some republicans, while President Clinton, would seem to conservative to some democrats. We are no longer the United States of America but the Untied States of America. Nothing binds us together as a nation. We should all have the same goal, a safe America with opportunity for all to thrive. Instead it has become all about ourselves. So many people are in the, "What's in it for me?" mode. What a sad state of being. No, I don't pick my friends based on politics. In my circle of friends it's called "common experiences." Who we are, what we've been through, and how we are going to support each other."

    June 16, 2014 at 7:40 am | Reply
  9. Willow S.

    I think this is in part due to the proliferation of biased media (both liberal and conservative). There is very little anymore for consumers that is not biased at all. So then, unless you read and watch multiple news shows, a person is highly likely to end up with a bias one way or the other. The days of actually balanced journalism are over.

    And yeah, I know all the fans of CNN and/or FOX will come back and say their particular news brand isn't biased. But guess what? It is.

    June 16, 2014 at 7:42 am | Reply
  10. Luckjoe

    What do you expect when you have a president who calls anyone who disagrees with him a terrorist?

    June 16, 2014 at 7:48 am | Reply
    • LOLA

      or a racist...

      June 16, 2014 at 8:37 am | Reply
    • G to the T

      But... Bush isn't President anymore is he?

      June 16, 2014 at 8:42 am | Reply
      • rl

        Nailed that one.

        June 16, 2014 at 9:21 am |
  11. neitherredorblue

    Look at you people (yes, I said 'you people') arguing about an article that is about the divide between both parties. Do you all not have anything better to do with your lives? And before anyone starts bashing me, I am a veteran and lean different ways on different issues. Yes, I think many of our liberties and in jeopardy but there are over 300,000,000 people in the US and I bet not one person agrees 100% on every single issue as someone else. There is always going to be a divide and unless the people of the US pull together, we are going to lose our status as a world leader. Think about it and get off your high horses.

    June 16, 2014 at 7:51 am | Reply
  12. liz

    I hold consistently liberal views however I do not think the answer is the gun as do the many on the right who hold consistently conservative views. Also the right engages in willful ignorance when it comes to politics and policies so that their views never evolve as proven last week when they kicked Cantor to the curb.

    June 16, 2014 at 7:52 am | Reply
  13. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    Some of these posts are unbelievable.
    They aro examples of the USA's educational system at this time.

    June 16, 2014 at 8:05 am | Reply
  14. TAJ

    Thanks to the MSM...yeah.

    June 16, 2014 at 8:14 am | Reply
    • wendigarou

      Because Faux (which is very much part of the MSM, though folks like you will never admit it) is so well known for uniting the nation.

      June 16, 2014 at 9:21 am | Reply
  15. lewcypher

    I wouldn't worry about this too much.

    As the browning of American continues liberalism will win out and the old white ultra-conservitard guard will die off.

    June 16, 2014 at 8:19 am | Reply
    • Enough is Enough

      "Conservitard"? Let's see how the "browning" of America turns out.....if history is a good indicator, the "browning" of any city or nation has not generally ended well...

      June 16, 2014 at 8:39 am | Reply
      • BubbaShakur

        True Enough.

        June 16, 2014 at 9:05 am |
      • lewcypher

        By your logic any non-white country or region should be in chaos and that is simply not the case.

        June 16, 2014 at 9:14 am |
  16. Tupper

    The problem is that they are not divided on major issues. The bailout and lack of charges against Wall Street is one example. No party is speaking out against NSA. Anti Semitism against Muslims. Intervention into other countries affairs whether with troop, drones bombing to assist their buddies on Wall Street.

    June 16, 2014 at 8:20 am | Reply
  17. RUDucky2

    Instead of, 'E Pluribus Unum' ('From many, one) we are becoming, 'E Pluribus Utrum' (From many, two). So much for united we stand.... How long till we fall?

    June 16, 2014 at 8:20 am | Reply
  18. nuclear mike

    Yes...the divisions are going to become permanent...

    June 16, 2014 at 8:21 am | Reply
  19. James

    So basically the idiots are gaining more power in the U.S. government, what a reassuring view of the future of this country.

    June 16, 2014 at 8:27 am | Reply
  20. Stop It

    America has turned it's political system into a sport. Americans have chosen their team and treat elections like the superbowl. We have no regard for improving America we just want the trophy and a complete destruction of the other team.

    June 16, 2014 at 8:40 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

      Well put, Stop It. Thank you.

      June 16, 2014 at 8:54 am | Reply
    • Regressive

      That pretty much sums it up!

      June 16, 2014 at 9:00 am | Reply
  21. Scrappyike

    Americans have become dumb and stupid. They (the politicians) have deliberately pitted the American people against each other so that they could line their pockets and the American people would be too busy fighting to notice. Hellooooo. Look at each American's financial status. Are we better off now than we were 6 yrs ago? Are we better now than we were 12 yrs ago? Price of gas, food and medical care have skyrocketed yet our salaries are stagnant. What have we done about this? Nothing. We let them get away with it. I have always advocated voting them out each year until they get the message that unless they truly represent us the people and not the corporations that put them in office, we will keep voting them out. I do agree that this country is at a danger point which will only get worse. Something will happen.

    June 16, 2014 at 8:41 am | Reply
    • lewcypher

      Not surprising in a country that doesn't even rank in the top 10 among industrialized nations fro K-12 academic achievement.

      June 16, 2014 at 9:16 am | Reply
  22. Scott Cisney

    I disagree with the assertion that democrats (also) are shifting, more to the left. I had a conversation with a collegue on this recently. I said I could produce some empirical data to show the shift was exclusively a right-ward shift by republicans. Now you'll have to google this, but a study of politics since the 1870s until the time of this study (2011?) showed that starting in the middle to late 1970s the republican party has moved the "nominate variable" steadily right. This was a study done by two professors one in New York (NYU?) and one in Georgia. I thought it was well done and clearly showed what people who really honestly think about this have thought...the shift if from one party to the right. Democrats are about where they've always been. I don't think they'd let me put the link in here anyway. Look around, I'm not making this up. It was based on issues, across a long period of time, and was statistically sound, unlike a survey performed at one time and then with huge conclusions drawn that the data do not even indicate, like is stated herein.

    June 16, 2014 at 8:43 am | Reply
  23. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    Like I said before, the reason America is so divided is the simple fact the some well educated people think for themselves and do not believe anything that comes out of the mouths of the right-wing thugs in Washington while those who either can't or don't think at all support Obama and his right-wing henchmen!

    June 16, 2014 at 8:53 am | Reply
  24. BubbaShakur

    Barack Obama will go down in the history books as "The Great Divider"
    The rich are not rich because the poor are poor and the poor are not poor because the rich are rich. When a society rewards poverty and failure, it only creates more of both.

    June 16, 2014 at 8:57 am | Reply
  25. Paul

    I see plenty of suggestions here bar the most obvious; splitting the Union. I for one would be happy to be rid of the leeching Red states.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:04 am | Reply
    • BubbaShakur

      Yet the quality of life in the red states is far superior. Funny ain't it?

      June 16, 2014 at 9:09 am | Reply
      • Kelly

        Really? The average life expectancy in some of these southern counties is lower than that of Tunisia. That's not the quality of life people in a first-world country expect.

        June 16, 2014 at 9:13 am |
      • rl

        If it were not for government programs and handout and government installations they would be a very poor third world county.

        June 16, 2014 at 9:25 am |
    • lewcypher

      "leeching red states"

      That's the common fallacy floating around in conservitard emails but if you did just a little research you would find that the red states suck in signicficantly more subsidies and welfare than the blue ones.

      Knowledge is your friend!

      June 16, 2014 at 9:21 am | Reply
  26. Karen

    I don't understand the divide, both parties work for the same corporations.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:12 am | Reply
    • rl

      Not realy the left works for The United States, the right works for the highest bidder.

      June 16, 2014 at 9:27 am | Reply
      • Karen

        Both sides work for the banks and big corporations, both sides. Don't fool yourself!

        June 16, 2014 at 9:39 am |
    • Gary Sutphin

      True...democracy regarding major important issues is dead in this country. Oh...there's plenty of democracy in the day to day little things that don't really matter to the country as a whole. Big the biggies...the fix is in.

      June 16, 2014 at 9:58 am | Reply
  27. USA - NATO - EU

    We don't live only in America nowadays, but in the greater NATO alliance. Now, we have NATO Americans – and NOT 'Asian Americans' anymore.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:14 am | Reply
    • CosmicC

      Tinfoil hat alert!

      June 16, 2014 at 9:46 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      That's about the dumbest post I've seen here yet, USA-NATO-EU! Did you ever get past the 4th grade?

      June 16, 2014 at 11:14 am | Reply
  28. Ohboy Barry

    Well, what do you expect? Democrats are dorks.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:17 am | Reply
  29. ItSoNlYmE

    Yes, America is dangerously divided. And as long as one side continues to move further than further to the fringe and beyond (hint: rhymes with 'pea farty'), nothing is going to change. As long as one side is utterly and completely unwilling to even begin to talk with the rest of society (hint: rhymes with 'pea farty'), nothing is going to change. And if things continue the way they're currently going, with one side arming itself to the teeth (hint: rhymes with 'pea farty'), blood will eventually be shed in the name of politics in this country. That hasn't happened in 150 years, but everyone reading this will live to see it happen again.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:30 am | Reply
  30. Desinge

    "Such partisans are increasingly active in their respective parties"

    Well, someone's got to be. The average American whines about how polarized things are and then say they refuse to vote because of it. Yet if more people were voting it wouldn't be so polarized. We put a lot of blame on our ELECTED officials but do we ever point the finger at ourselves? Women, these days, vote more than men do, yet even that is a fraction of the women who turned out to vote after women got the right to vote...sad.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:38 am | Reply
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