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. no repukelicans allowed

    Come to think of it. Republicans have no good reason to live. They waste the air of normal people.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:29 pm | Reply
  2. BubbaShakur

    Our Country is "Going Tribal". The current admin has been very good at using "divide, form tribal alliances & conquer". Creative jealousy pitting the "haves" against the "have nots" is nothing new and it works! Congratulations! Lenin would be proud.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:30 pm | Reply
    • Daniel P. Hanover

      I agree. Democrats and liberals are Evil. PURE EVIL. And I say this as an independent. I'm NOT a Republican. And I VOTE in EVERY election.

      June 15, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Reply
      • kalo

        Lol "This country is so divided" "I WANT ALL LIBERALS TO DIE!"

        June 15, 2014 at 10:51 pm |
      • HarveyYaz

        People like you, Daniel, are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Get out of your right-wing echo chamber and see the world as it is.

        June 15, 2014 at 11:31 pm |
      • Mark

        Please... "independent?" You're clearly a right wing extremist with your evil nonsense. What do you do? Float between voting Republican and some right wing nutjob that wants to bring slavery back?

        June 15, 2014 at 11:49 pm |
      • Total2199

        Don’t you understand that this is a single party show. Some actors just wear t-shirts with elephant logo, others wear t-shirts with donkeys. This is the only difference between them because their financial support comes from the same sources – this is a Corporate Plutocracy which claims to be a democracy.

        June 15, 2014 at 11:49 pm |
      • Neil

        Mark, while I know you were tongue in cheek with your response you might be interested to know that during the 1860 election the entire south voted Democrat, while the north voted Republican, and it was a Lincoln, a Republican, who was the POS when slavery was abolished. Just sayin...

        June 16, 2014 at 12:30 am |
      • Alan Degolmon

        "I agree. Democrats and liberals are Evil. PURE EVIL. And I say this as an independent."

        Brilliant contradiction. How "independent" you are!

        June 16, 2014 at 12:36 am |
      • skarphace

        Neil, well back when Lincoln was President, Democrats were the conservatives (hence still wanted the status quo), and Republicans were the progressives. And I hope you meant to call Lincoln the POTUS, not POS.

        June 16, 2014 at 12:50 am |
    • markinfla

      Right, and the GOP has been SO ready to compromise. Forget it. What a joke. The GOP will go against their own plans if Obama even starts to agree with it. The GOP had a stated goal of fighting ANYTHING Obama supported. Their only goal literally is to destroy Obama. Forget actually doing their jobs.

      June 15, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Reply
      • voncile

        markinfla – You make it sound like Republicans don't want to admit we want to stop Obama in his tracks. The fact is, yes we do want to stop him from destroying our country. I will never deny that!! For the most part, the Republicans are doing the job their base sent them to D.C. to do.... Stop Obama from destroying this country.

        June 15, 2014 at 11:09 pm |
      • Chris

        Way to buy into the partisan BS that those in power are feeding us, to keep us fighting with one another and not paying attention to how BOTH sides are destroying this country for their own personal gains.

        Bravo Mr/Mrs Sheep, Bra-vo!

        June 15, 2014 at 11:33 pm |
      • skarphace

        Voncile, well you make it seem like ultra-conservatives only oppose Obama because of his policies, but that just isn't true. They oppose everything he does regardless of policy. Obama has had plenty of policies that mirror the past policies of the right, up to and including the heritage foundation based health care plan he passed.

        Remember the words of McConnell after Obama won the vote and before he was even sworn in, "Our main agenda is to make this President fail."

        June 16, 2014 at 12:56 am |
    • voncile

      You are absolutely correct. Good post!!

      June 15, 2014 at 11:06 pm | Reply
    • Andrew

      Last I looked it was the GOP that has repeatedly refused to compromise on issues such as deficit reduction, immigration reform, and healthcare. The all or nothing philosophy is not governing it is pure obstructionism and is producing epic gridlock to the point that we are being out governed by the Chinese. Many Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi share the blame however at this point in time it is the Tea Party controlled GOP that is primarily to blame for the falling status of this nation. A house divided cannot stand....and we are now divided. It was a good run.

      June 15, 2014 at 11:23 pm | Reply
    • Steven Bannister

      Yes indeed, our country is "going tribal." And it was a certain "tribe" that divided us....

      June 15, 2014 at 11:54 pm | Reply
      • skarphace

        A Tribe Called Quest?

        June 16, 2014 at 12:58 am |
    • Shifty

      Race war, anyone? Anyone? Anyone up for a race war?

      June 16, 2014 at 12:02 am | Reply
    • matthewstephenbrown

      We're pretty divided. Almost at a civil war level. We pay 7% in payroll taxes before any of our taxes are taken out? 7% lost to the gov't, so they can do what? And you elected a man who's never run a business, who's never run payroll, who's never done anything but staple flyers to a telephone pole. Yeah, we're divided.

      June 16, 2014 at 12:13 am | Reply
      • skarphace

        How many Presidents have we had who previously owned a business?

        June 16, 2014 at 1:01 am |
    • Rigel Kent

      people like you one day will either be lined up against a wall...or the one firing on a line of people against a wall..you are disgusting

      June 16, 2014 at 12:26 am | Reply
    • Alan Degolmon

      Our Country has been "Going Tribal" ever since Rush Limbaugh and the conservative pundits have been using "divide, form tribal alliances & conquer" in the phony "war on Liberalism..

      This country was divided long before the current administration. Creative animosity pitting the "liberals" against the "conservatives" is nothing new and it works! Congratulations! Hitler would be proud.

      June 16, 2014 at 12:34 am | Reply
  3. Ray

    I'm still liberal on some things and conservative on others.
    I'm all for legalizing cannabis, but I'm also all for shooting anyone trying to cross our southern border right in the head the instant they touch toe to US soil.
    If for both staying out of Iraq AND going in. Stay out until there's a winner in this latest dust up, then go in and obliterate them completely -before they catch their breath!

    June 15, 2014 at 10:32 pm | Reply
    • ug

      I can agree with you on this...but I'm no lib lover.

      June 15, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Reply
    • voncile

      Ray – I am an absolute Republican and I agree with every word in your post. This site needs a 'like' button!!!

      June 15, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Reply
  4. Jason

    The country is, indeed, severely divided. We have become a country who falls into one of two camps - those who believe in the scale of big government as a positive and those who believe it is an evil money-sucking squid. Neither camp is precisely correct, but this has become a major dividing line.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Reply
    • ug

      No it is not...your divided in your head.

      June 15, 2014 at 10:39 pm | Reply
      • Lukeskywalkr

        You're*. . . obviously a Republican here.

        June 15, 2014 at 11:19 pm |
  5. BC

    Sensationalism at its best. This is a Seinfeld article, the article about nothing. Political systems have existed for centuries.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  6. ug

    No...just morons like cnn and liberals would have you think that...screw em.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:39 pm | Reply
  7. Rod Brombacher

    Agreed. The left and right are far far apart on almost everything. The right went from proposing a carbon tax back in the 90's to denying any science so that there isnt any reason to do any environmental legislation. Instead of creating a party that would attract some in the middle they change the rules to block voting. The refuse to budge on any of their ideology and retreat farther to the right. On a good note most of the GOPs' voters are older and white, so soon they will be a minority and their ranks will dwindle simply by age and death. The left will gain strength due to this simple fack...old people will eventuly die and the minority populations are growing.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Reply
    • voncile

      Rod Brombacher – Do you think ALL young people are flaming liberals? You are sadly mistaken buddy!!

      June 15, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Reply
      • Alan Degolmon

        He never said anything about ALL young people. He talked in terms of minorities and majorities. You spun what he said into an absolute that didn't exist. Try to count higher than 2. All or nothing doesn't work, and never did.

        June 16, 2014 at 12:40 am |
  8. Thefollow

    How to tell if you're one of the deeply divided:

    1. You think one party is FAR better than the other.
    2. You believe the excessive extremists on either side represent the entire party ideology.
    3. You believe conservatives or liberals are evil.
    4. You believe you should get everything you want in politics. (That's a dictatorship, democracy means none of us get what we want completely.)

    June 15, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Reply
    • voncile

      Thefollow – You explained that very well!! This site needs a 'like' button. I am a Republican but I know and agree with some of my Democrat friends and strangers. I just don't agree with the sheeple. They are way toooo extreme!!

      June 15, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Reply
      • mindibones

        "I'm not as bad as all those other guys. I just can't stand sheeple." You can't be serious.

        June 16, 2014 at 12:10 am |
    • mindibones

      Well said.

      June 16, 2014 at 12:09 am | Reply
    • Rogue351

      Hello.......... Tea Party members killed in cold blood two police officers and left a Nazi and Tea Party flag at the scene. The Tea Party advocates hatred against gays, blacks, and anyone who does not agree with them. They are fueled by hate, guns and religion. Which party does the KKK belong to ? All of this hatred is not the norm, at least not yet. But with these nut jobs on radio and TV 24/7 advocating anti government it very easily could become the norm. Yes there is a divid, and the American people should not stand for 30000 people being killed each year because those who insist on owning and selling guns with no laws requiring registration or training along with owning virtually any type of weapon. This is part of the main stream thought process of the GOP and the Tea Party. Radical religious, pro gun, pro white are part of the political process already, wake up. Take a look at Rick Perry and Santorum, listen to conservative radio and TV and tell me there are not pro white, pro religion anti government overtones. They want violence, they want to use these guns. Why else would a person walk down the street with an AR-15 strapped to there back, not just because they have the right to do so but because they want to shock and confronted by the police. Then if the office draws his weapon to protect himself it is the officer who is the oppressor. Wake up people, America is not white, it is not christian and more guns in the hands of anyone who wants one without training, registration and a duty by law to keep them secure does not have the best interest of the American people in mind. Carrying a gun clearly did not help, in the least the trained gun owner whom was shot dead by the people from the Bundy ranch, Tea Party members, now did it ?

      June 16, 2014 at 12:26 am | Reply
  9. VVVVV

    If the story is true it could be cause the networks don't hold as big of a hold on aired opinion due to the internet. Thus we aren't lead as much as at the beginning of the age of TV.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Reply
  10. Just a vet

    The nation has always been divided, since Thomas Jefferson vs. Andrew Jackson. Duels were even fought, this is not new, this is America, where differences are expected because we have the right to free speech.

    Are we "dangerously" divided? Not any more than 300 years ago. And we have reason, especially in modern times, to be closer than ever. Do not ever hate your brother for his thoughts, rather, his actions. If Russia or China were to invade us this day, we would all gladly join hands and live or die as one.

    THAT'S America. Love to my people.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Reply
    • Alan Degolmon

      We're certinaly nowhere near as divided as we were in 1860. However weren't the big Populist vs. Federalist conflicts between Jefferson and John Adams, not Jefferson and Andrew Jackson?

      June 16, 2014 at 12:42 am | Reply
  11. 5giggy

    First it was the Indians against invaders, then invaders against blacks, now invaders against the native of the north america. Now invaders agaknst anyone who disagree. Problem invaders act as though this their land.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:06 pm | Reply
  12. Dan

    The elected leaders aren't very divided when it comes to helping their wealthy campaign donors. Raising the estate tax exemption and keeping the rates low were a high priority while the middle class tax cuts are being used as a political football.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Reply
  13. f. wisinski

    "...it has profound implications for economic and security issues that affect the rest of the world." Why then does the author of this article not discuss these "implications" if they are so profound. Support your thesis!

    June 15, 2014 at 11:14 pm | Reply
  14. Scott

    The division should ONLY be about big-government vs small-government. If it becomes about religion, then we should all look at the middle-east for inspiration or denegration into hell. If our government comes to not willing to compromise as ALL elected officials should be willing to do – then every citizen should be willing to vote out those who will not be reasonable to commit to the AMERICAN values to compromise, look at the future, be willing to consider another view – EVEN if it does not 100% match to theirs. The American Civil War was a turning point with the US and the extremism that led to citizens taking up arms to try to keep a country together and to say that forcing anyone to live a way or believe a way is not acceptable and that "we" as citizens will not enforce that on anyone as long as they do not enforce on the rest of us.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Reply
  15. skarphace

    Is America 'dangerously' divided? Well, it matters the context. Dangerously as in risking a civil war? I would not think so. Therefore, we were much more divided during the time of Lincoln. Dangerously as in risking an economic collapse? More likely, but I would still hesitate to put my money on that bet. Therefore, we were more divided during the Great Depression.

    On the other hand, are we dangerously divided enough on some issues to make this country not as safe or not as economically well off as we should be? Definitely.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:24 pm | Reply
  16. too bad

    thanks for a breath of fresh air just a vet .

    June 15, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  17. Mirror Mirror

    The problem is that people have become completely and willingly brainwashed and exploited by their own party, speak the party like, think the party thoughts, think they are totally right and everyone else totally wrong. Doesn't matter which party: if you are a committed Republican or Democrat, you are a pawn, a tool, the mark in a con game.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:37 pm | Reply
    • sal tracey

      That's the way I've felt for years!

      June 15, 2014 at 11:39 pm | Reply
  18. Jerry

    In other words, most Americans are morons. Most Americans "think" they have a voice. They think their opinion actually matters. They think going to the ballad box every 4 years is actually going to make a difference. It's sad and comical at the same time.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:37 pm | Reply
  19. sal tracey

    It appears that the people posting here bring more insight to the table than the people who present this crap on CNN and FoxNews. Of course this country is divided, when you have one side ramming ideology down the countries throat and making one belief that everyone in that group hates all color of people and vilifies them on television and in addresses to the nation, its no wonder why. If Obama can stand up and say republicans are vile creatures, they hate gays, they hate poor people but in the same day, get on Air Force 1, fly to palm springs hob nob with celebrates deny that his state dept., justice dept. and homeland security have your best interests at heart, well then you can go F yourself thinking that its all hunky dory! Read a paper, get a job and pay your damn taxes and vote often and get along. Gays aren't going anywhere, legalize the "cheeba" and its nobody's right to tell a woman what she can do with her body. And yes, I'm republican, the biggest part about me that is, is my paycheck....as far as I'm concerned, my taxes pay for a product, the product of living in this country and that money is being squandered...I want a refund!

    June 15, 2014 at 11:37 pm | Reply
  20. Jerry

    "ballot"

    June 15, 2014 at 11:38 pm | Reply
  21. Jim Rome

    Extremist Fox News has polarized a small but vocal minority in this country. Just like the NRA. Wait, it's the same thing.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  22. Brian

    CNN has the nerve to write an article asking this question when CNN has been one of the lead contributors to the left wing cause by making accusations towards Republicans and white people.
    CNN is the lowest of the low, a disgusting left wing propaganda network that participates in the political and racial division fostered by this malicious obama administration and then has the gall to ask if the country is dangerously divided.

    Whoa, just whoa.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  23. Stu

    Notice how the conservatives are very hostile to non-conservatives, such as wishing death and hoping all liberals die??

    June 15, 2014 at 11:53 pm | Reply
    • armed for liberty

      Well Stu I haven't seen any conservatives marching down streets holding signs and wearing shirts that say "kill Obama", however I have seen liberals march with them saying "kill Bush." But don't misunderstand my feelings, your liberal, feminist, fascist party is a cancer to our society and while I cherish your right of freedom of expression and speech I only wish your party showed the same liberty to the conservative party who disagrees with your ideology.

      June 16, 2014 at 12:30 am | Reply
      • skarphace

        Yeah, ultra-conservatives don't wear t-shirts advocating murder, they just do it. I would rather see the t-shirt, thank you.

        June 16, 2014 at 12:38 am |
  24. Will

    I find this whole situation disheartening. Americans on the left believe gov't can solve most everything, and those on the right like make grandiose statements that are completely out of touch with reality.

    Reality check: There are a lot of problems in this country. Republicans operate with a mindset steeped in fear, greed, and a lack of compassion. Democrats quite often seem lack any sense of pragmatism. What this country needs is pragmatic compassionate politicians who are willing to point back to things this country has done right and bring them back into practice.

    June 15, 2014 at 11:56 pm | Reply
  25. Rogue351

    YES, and the Tea Party is the American insurgency. Any group that can spawn people cold blooded enough to gun down two police officers and leave a nazi and tea party flag at the scene are nuts and should be classified as a terrorist group. Any group that arms themselves with the intent of having an armed standoff with federal agents over cows and a man that has clearly broken the law for years is not on the side of the American people. These radio and TV moron who's only. only goal is to make money for themselves and in the process divid our nation based on guns. 30000 people a year in America die because there are so many guns on our streets. If the people buying gun where actually capable of owning a gun we would not have so many illegal guns on our streets. We would not have the obscene amount of school shootings. Why doesn't Switzerland have this high of gun violence where everyone is required to own a gun ? Because the people who own the guns are required to take care of them and know how to store them and use them. Not crazy nut jobs who travel across the country to stand against our government for cows and the criminal who violated the law. The Tea Party is not an answer. Republicans start wars abroad, the Tea Party advocated killing our own right here. And what do they use as a reason, the 2nd amendment. What about the rights of the innocent people killed what about their rights ?

    June 15, 2014 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  26. Adam

    I would say we Americans aren't as divided as we are ignorant. Just reading this story and the comments that come after makes me feel embarrassed of my American brotheren.

    June 16, 2014 at 12:09 am | Reply
    • skarphace

      You are surprised? We have had very low high school test scores relative to the rest of the world for a couple decades now. Sooner or later the dumb grow up. Unfortunately, they stay dumb.

      June 16, 2014 at 12:40 am | Reply
  27. PZS0012

    I think it is because we are getting dumber as a society. The media egs us on to take sides. It's all simplification due to regressing intellectualism.

    June 16, 2014 at 12:10 am | Reply
  28. chri§§y

    Most AWESOME post @ Just A Vet! You sir, should post more often!!!!

    June 16, 2014 at 12:18 am | Reply
  29. Nick G

    These comments are exactly what the article is talking about... Kind of ironic, isn't it?

    June 16, 2014 at 12:19 am | Reply
    • skarphace

      What are you talking about? I don't hate all Republicans just because all Republicans hate America. I don't blame them for their brainwashed minds.

      June 16, 2014 at 12:43 am | Reply
      • skarphace

        Er .. that was sarcasm btw. Just making sure...

        June 16, 2014 at 12:43 am |
  30. davey

    It is not dangerous. It is fatal and so many pathetic individuals will be very happy.

    June 16, 2014 at 12:20 am | Reply
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