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. Katie

    In Wisconsin we have had some successful efforts at bridging the political divide among citizens. Our views may often feel polarized, but by learning to respect and understand each other we can have more productive conversations. Check out http://www.howtotalkpolitics.com if you're interested in learning more.

    June 15, 2014 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  2. callinfiresupport

    Amazing.......you are just now figuring this out????

    June 15, 2014 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  3. spoo

    this is the result of the wars in Irak and Afghanistan. The right wing has made trillions of dollars in profits from the war. Now they are putting that miney into buying the government, it may cost us a civil war.

    June 15, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Reply
    • pkevinwells

      Article validated.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:08 pm | Reply
    • Tony

      Wow...you kinda confirmed the entire article and why people like you make America divided (and I would say the same thing to a right winger too..not just a left winger)

      June 15, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  4. Tru

    The only danger to America is the tea party nuts that want to "take the country back". The problem is the county is only moving forward with progress. The tea nuts want to take the country back to the "good ole days" that were only good for a select few. No thanks; we spoke loud and clear in 2008 and again in 2012; we prefer forward thinking versus backward thinking!

    June 15, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  5. Politicant

    Divide and conquer. All politicians are liars. Party affiliation doesn't matter. It is all about the money. Why bother fighting it out? They are all corrupt. You can argue over who is right. They will vote themselves another raise and laugh all the way to the bank.

    June 15, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Reply
    • fr33d0mhawk

      There is a solution, publicly funded campaigns and no lobbyists allowed more access than given to any ordinary citizen.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Reply
      • fr33domfight3r

        And don't forget term limits.

        June 15, 2014 at 6:11 pm |
      • Ruby

        If possible, might work. More so if such a solution gave rise to an effective centralist third party.

        June 15, 2014 at 6:40 pm |
      • nitherherenorthere

        yes, repeal Citizens United

        June 15, 2014 at 8:56 pm |
  6. Liberal Garbage

    Product of the current administration. Will not be corrected untill it swings back to the right.

    June 15, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Reply
    • John

      Your comment fully illustrates the problem.

      June 15, 2014 at 5:53 pm | Reply
    • pkevinwells

      Article validated.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  7. jimcarnoven

    Thinking anything AS a Democrat or Republican - thinking ABOUT Democrats or Republicans - is a waste of mental energy and makes everyone dumber.

    June 15, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  8. LeeMT

    All one has to do is view CNN comments under any and every story to see the insane division in America. Liberals railing against conservatives, and conservatives (more so) railing and spewing against liberals. Although I still don't know why the latter always lurk here, since CNN hardly agrees with their thinking. It seems they would be happier elsewhere, unless arguing is simply their hobby.
    The division gets larger by the day. This country is in big trouble.

    June 15, 2014 at 5:52 pm | Reply
    • John

      Fox's website no longer allows posts. It's why conservatives come here. They'd be more than happy to pat themselves on the back over there.

      June 15, 2014 at 5:55 pm | Reply
      • TiredOfPaying

        Yeah, I've yet to hear a reasonable explaination as to why they stopped allowing comments. The closest to 'reasonable' I've heard is that they don't actually write the articles, instead buying them from other sites and they are not allowed to comment on those. If true it just shows that Fox is simply entertainment and not News.

        I guess they were embarassed by the consistently stupid things their users posted.

        June 16, 2014 at 12:43 pm |
    • pkevinwells

      Article validated.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  9. Rudy

    Do America a favor: Run over a Tea Bagger today!

    June 15, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Reply
    • Alex

      Spoken like a true liberal.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Reply
      • Rudy

        Written like a true tbagging imbeciIe.

        June 15, 2014 at 6:06 pm |
      • pkevinwells

        Article validated.

        June 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm |
    • pkevinwells

      Article validated.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Reply
    • Ruby

      Hate much?

      June 15, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  10. Dan

    I'm afraid. I'm afraid because of how even this post is divided and mean spirited. Although I'm liberal, I do want to hear what others, no matter their allegiance, are thinking. I want to remain a critical thinker so that I can stop myself when I'm thinking, speaking, or becoming angry because someone doesn't think like I. But I'm terribly afraid. I feel as 'though I could be murdered, hurt or horribly accused of something I've not said or thought just because I might be different, might express something that sounds anti-Nationalism, anti-Patriotic, anti-Religious, anti-Spiritual, or just anti-You. We are in a horrific mess in this country and there seems to be no sign that we will become free again. I think I've mustered up enough courage to write this post, but I know that it will be attacked or agreed with. Why can't we just write kind or less mean things and just not have anyone answer? In order to hear, we must first listen well.

    June 15, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  11. Rudy

    Palin is the poster child for illiterate, hate spewing, red necks.

    June 15, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Reply
    • puddintane

      Your rant is full of rabid hatred

      June 15, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Reply
    • puddintane

      Your rant is full of rabid hatred, redneck

      June 15, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Reply
  12. fr33d0mhawk

    The dangerousness of this divide is really by one side, the armed Birther types who are automatically against anything Democrats do, even when Democrats adopt traditionally conservative platforms, such as Cap and Trade and mandatory private health insurance. The problem is both of the extremes have divorced themselves from reality, and are willing to swallow the most ridiculous lies to keep their fiery hatred stoked, aka the Birther and Truther lies. But let's be honest, over 50% of Republicans parrot the lie that Obama was born in Kenya not because its true, but because its convenient reason to spread hatred and because it demonstrates obedience to the fasco-propagandist narrative. Let us not forget that it was Republicans cheering the thought of uninsured Americans dying in the gutter from treatable illness at the GOP primary debate in Florida, yet not one single leading Conservative has come out and admonished the liars that represent the majority of Republicans. The only people I know who would cheer an American dying in the gutter from a treatable illness besides the Teaparty Right are Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, basically Muslim terrorists.

    The Teaparty Right are well armed, and think they are on a holy mission to wipe infidels off the face of the earth. I have heard first hand of a pastor of a mega-church with thousands of parishoners order his followers to buy weapons because the time to take the final war against liberalism is coming soon. Go see RightWingWatch.org to see more of this kind of blatant fascism rearing its ugly terrorist head. And don't think that we could just call the police on that church for plotting terrorism because that church has a large county sheriff and dozens of cops and I head even several FBI agents who are as excited about killing liberals as the rest of them. But its not about Christ, its about using Christ to promote their fascist ideology and plots of genocide against liberals. There are no equivalents among liberals, no large group of liberals with several thousand plus members who fanatics about guns and killing members of the opposite party, no large groups of liberals who parrot ridiculous and seditious lies, no groups of liberals with "Remember Waco" or signs that suggest praying for the death of Republican leaders on bumper stickers.

    There is no equating the far right in the US to the far left. The far right have the Tim McVeigh mentality and their hatred for their fellow Americans is just as severe. Every major terrorist act in the USA for decades now has been from right wing radicals egged on by the fasco-propagandist Right, and the reason why we are so polarized is because the hatred the Right has for the majority of Americans. If we blame both sides, it will only serve to enflame the Teaparty right further as they believe that they are justified in their hatred against the majority of Americans. It needs to be called like it is, the fascist religious fanatics in America are the gravest threat to the USA since the USSR. And its especially sad because so many of those right wingers are good people until the moment politics comes up, and if they looked at their fellow Americans as individuals rather than infidels deserving of death. Seriously, what kind of American would openly cheer with a cackle like a mad scientist removing someone's brain against their will over the thought of an uninsured American dying in the gutter from a treatable illness? Where is the equivalent from the left? Where is the more than 50% of liberals who parrot obvious lies and pretend they are true just like the Birthers just to gin up their hatred?

    June 15, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Reply
    • Davy

      Your language is so full of vitriol, it's incomprehensible to me that you don't realize that you are part of the PROBLEM. Ever read Politics and the English language by George Orwell. He is talking about people like you.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  13. Davy

    The expansion of Government means that an increasing number of issues are decided in the Political arena, which means alienation for the side the losses out. The only way to reverse this growing dislike for the 'other' is for a smaller Government. Every election is such high stakes now, a zero sum game, one wins the other losses. This will just get worse, as Government expands, and expands, without end.

    June 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  14. Ron

    As much as it seems to be a Democrat vs Republican war and even though the GOP has done nothing at all helpful in the last 6 years even as much as preventing Federally funded and sorely needed road jobs in most states, this is a Religion/Redneck/Science battle. As in most countries in Earth's History, Religion and it's radicalization is destroying the United States. And it is the GOP Religious Radicals fueling the fire!

    June 15, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Reply
    • abcontador

      Well said, and so obviously true

      June 15, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  15. Rudy

    The GOP is made up of three distinct groups:

    1) Toothless red necks / low info rubes

    2) Flat earther evangelicals who are similar to the Taliban and pine for a theocracy

    3) Shameless greedheads who love Ayn Rand, want to pay no taxes, slash social services for the disabled and elderly and bribe government officials to secure breaks and perks not available to others.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:01 pm | Reply
    • Alex

      How long did it take you to type in between bong hits?

      June 15, 2014 at 6:14 pm | Reply
      • Rudy

        How long have you suffered from the plague of impotence, Alex?

        June 15, 2014 at 6:16 pm |
  16. Garner Foley

    The Tea Party their supporters want the people to give up on government itself as an effective way for humans to be organized though there is no other way. They like to hear it said that there is no difference between Democrat and Republican parties as this means they have caused the apathy and lack of participation form groups who oppose or might oppose them. Unfortunately this is going to end up bad for America if we do not get our heads out of the sand, and quickly too!!!.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:01 pm | Reply
    • Alex

      We do not need more government. We need more freedom. Crawl back in your filthy hole of self pity and cry to obama to rescue you from your hopeless life.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Reply
      • Rudy

        Boo Hoo...Alex is angry about his impotency.

        June 15, 2014 at 6:09 pm |
    • Davy

      Humans tend toward organization naturally, libertarians recognize the inherent force behind Government even if you cannot, and thus support limiting Government, because limiting Government is viewed as limiting force and coercion.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  17. padric2

    The headline read, "Is America dangerously divided"? The answer is yes. Was this a rhetorical headline? Might as well have a headline that reads "Does it hurt to get stabbed"?

    June 15, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • nitherherenorthere

      Ha ha!

      June 15, 2014 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  18. Jim S

    One of the primary reasons for the divisions are the talk shows like Rush Limbaugh, Shaun Hannity, and others who spout out so much hatred each and every day on the air. These types of shows are designed and intended to foster division and anger among voters and they do. They also foster all kinds of conspiracy theories and other antics which also divide and anger the nation. This the one primary reason why we no longer pull together as a country and are so much less effective in anything we try to do.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Reply
    • Rudy

      Telling that the "conservative" icons Hannity, Limbaugh, Palin and Beck, are all poorly educated hate spewers who emulate the late Joseph McCarthy. Fascists, all.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  19. fr33domfight3r

    I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  20. bribarian

    If you just gloss over the comments 80% are "tea party gop republicans" blah blah blah

    Liberals seem to be quite bitter that not everyone is going along with their utopic marxist views. So sad for them.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:15 pm | Reply
    • bribarian

      Liberal media has really done a good job of creating these she eple who blame everything on the right, when they're largely responsible themselves for the mess.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  21. abcontador

    religion has divided the country - you have the well educated and logical and you have the brainwashed

    June 15, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  22. John

    I firmly believe that Faux News and right wing conservative pundits like Limbaugh, O'Rielley, , Hannity, Ingram, have polarized this country to a dangerous level. We should all step away from their rhetoric because the outcome could truly be a civil war. Demonizing the ability to compromise and work together to move this great nation forward is not productive and dangerous.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Reply
    • bribarian

      It's funny that you libbabies own 99% of the media, but the one percent you don't have you want to ruin. It's why the country is tired of your totalitarianism.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:19 pm | Reply
      • John

        Actually big corporations own 99% of the media. And Rupert Murdoch and a Saudie Prince own Faux News. While the Supreme Court may find Corporations are a person I think of the as stockholders.

        June 16, 2014 at 9:47 am |
    • Alex

      So anyone that does not agree with the liberal agenda is polarizing? Liberals push their agenda on everyone else and call it extreme when we push back.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:23 pm | Reply
      • Rudy

        You don't push back at anything, soft boy.

        June 15, 2014 at 6:25 pm |
  23. Rudy

    Hilarious that the Fox Nooz watchers (who all live in a hermetically sealed bubble) assume that because everyone they know is a "conservative", the majority must be. It's like a joke that only they don't get.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  24. bribarian

    What do you expect when you put a Kenyan born marxist in for president?

    June 15, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  25. chri§§y

    Agree @ Jocho Johnson! And GREED is whats ruining our country! GREED is also not party affiliated! Its also GREED that motivates the elected egotrippinmaniacs also known as congress! Every last one of them need to be fired and replaced! And we need age caps and term limits on congress. They have gotten way too lazy and comfortable in these positions! And ban the special interest lobbiests and make the taking of kickbacks a punishable offense! Congress must be held accountable for their actions no matter which party they belong too!

    June 15, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  26. jrutzler

    This is why a thug like Putin thinks he can puff out his chest. A divided nation cannot stand. Where does anybody in Congress think this current bi-polar "legislature" is going? They should take their money and go, and let those non-corrupted by the current power brokers take control of the United States government.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  27. hoffhort

    I agree that we are in deep trouble. Personally, I think the way that the GOP, from McConnell and Boehner on down, disrespects Obama and undercuts him at every opportunity comes close to treason. They even do this when he dealing with intractable foreign problems. It's a kneejerk reaction. We must look crazy to the rest of the world.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:22 pm | Reply
    • Alex

      Obama is not king yet and challenging his policies is nowhere close to treason.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:27 pm | Reply
  28. jrutzler

    Meanwhile, the Chinese just wait...

    June 15, 2014 at 6:23 pm | Reply
    • Biff E Jones

      China must have us to buy their junk and they just copy our technology. They will always remain 20 years behind the curve. America is and will remain the super power. We will disolve from within not from outside forces. DC politicans and the IRS and political correctness are like cancerous tumors eating us from within. It will be our demise.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  29. kknoop1

    Hilarious, people read an article about how ideological differences are dividing the country like never before and immediately comment on how the other side of extremest are ruining the country. Then they get really constructive and start using phrases like "libtard"... Even if you point out the fact that extremism is ruining the country people refuse to take a step back and look at issues critically and understand compromise can be a strength.

    June 15, 2014 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • bribarian

      The problem I have is it seems like Americans are doing all the compromising while leftists and others take over the country. Offering up amnesty, putting a socialist president in, calling everyone who disagrees a racist.....After awhile you have to expect a backlash.

      June 15, 2014 at 6:26 pm | Reply
    • nitherherenorthere

      Totally in agreement, especially about the name calling.

      June 15, 2014 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  30. Biff E Jones

    LEGALIZE MARIJUANA AND EVERYTHING WILL CHANGE

    June 15, 2014 at 6:24 pm | Reply
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