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 (814 Responses)
  1. miscreantsall

    Democrats: mistakes in execution of ideology

    Republicans: maleficent

    June 16, 2014 at 9:40 am |
  2. ztarbod

    Just what are "strongly liberal" or "strongly conservative" views?

    I have watched the acrimony building since the 1994 election took Congress away from the democrats. The 2000 election really amped up the vitriol. Since much of the media is controlled by "liberals" public information is filtered with their bias.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:40 am |
    • jam

      ....but what about the CONSERVATIVE media? How come they always expect a pass for their bias? Anyone who listens to Rush or Hammity knows they are hardly unbiased themselves.....Oh, the hypocracy....

      June 16, 2014 at 9:58 am |
      • ed

        If you listened to Rush or Hannity you would realize how stupid your comment is.

        June 16, 2014 at 10:18 am |
      • jam

        Ed: I have listened to them both many times. How would YOU know whether I had or not? Did you just ASSume?

        June 16, 2014 at 10:26 am |
      • JC

        Those guys are just providing their opinions on something that may or may not have been verified as "news". Hannity is the worst. He's such a Limbaugh lapdog. Limbaugh had some interesting things to say early in his career but his drug problem sank what little bit of credibilty he had left.

        The problem with Politics today is that the American People no longer know who's credible with regards to their positions.

        Some credible politicians of recent memory:

        Colin Powell
        George HW Bush
        R. James Woosley (not really a politician but I wanted to mention him because he's said some intelligent things related to our foreign policy in the Middle East).
        James Baker
        Former House Rep Ron Paul
        Former Sen. Bob Dole
        Former House Speaker Tip O'Neil

        Politicans who are not credible:

        Dick Cheney
        Bill Clinton
        Hillary Clinton
        Sen. Shumer
        fmr House Rep Dick Armey
        Sen. Mitch McConnell
        Sen. Harry Reid
        House Rep Pelosi

        On the fence:

        George W Bush.

        I think both in some aspects were not prepared for what was required of them and as a result they were/are too easily swayed and were forced to play both sides of the fence.

        June 18, 2014 at 12:26 pm |
      • John

        Hey Jam its "Hypocrisy". You must be a liberal genius.

        June 19, 2014 at 11:25 am |
  3. atlwmn

    Just browse the CNN comments one day and you'll find proof of this study. I don't even think Burr and Hamilton lived in a society as politically divided as this shamefulness.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:40 am |
  4. Roger Logic

    Just treat it like a zoo, where naturally you'd have to keep donkeys in a separate enclosure than you keep the elephants.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:46 am |
  5. rad666

    yes we are deeply divided between the ultra rich, the middle class who work to try and keep their heads above water and the losers who get everything for nothing.

    June 16, 2014 at 9:49 am |
  6. Tim

    Our country is quite literally at a breaking point. One thing I know from having read so much history is that history is indeed doomed to repeat itself. It is amazing, when you look at the situation, how similar our situation now is to that of the Soviet Union prior to its collapse. The collapse of the American central government will be much worse, however, than the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the case of the Soviet Union, the various Republics of which it was comprised peeled off from the union into fairly unified consolidated states, and, though they struggled and still struggle, there was no need to unify the countries that were created as they were already fairly unified. Differently, the United States has many areas that are quite amalgamous. We have states with swing districts, and we even have certain towns or cities within districts that do not vote the same way as the rest of the district. To further complicate things, we have areas that are Republican but are more for moderate Republicans than conservatives. The same is true of Democrats, where we have those that support moderate Democrats and those that support liberal Democrats. We also have areas that are heavily African American, areas that are heavily Hispanic, and areas that are heavily White. If our nation collapses it will be the single bloodiest most violent war ever fought in the history of man. It will be a true neighbor against neighbor type fight. Every precaution and effort must be undertaken to prevent the disunity of our nation whilst we have a chance.

    June 16, 2014 at 10:03 am |
    • Mike

      The division would be along political ideological lines. White christian conservative confederates from the south against everybody else. No need to fight a war though. We'll let the south leave this time.

      June 17, 2014 at 12:37 pm |
    • Cory G

      No. And here's why:
      There hasn't even been a successful street protest movement in the United States since 1968.
      There is generalized disdain for protesters of any type. And a generalized dislike of the poor.
      Even Occupy [which attempted to appeal to a broad unhappy audience] wilted away very quickly and had virtually no political impact.
      The US is a very un-revolutionary location. Unless there is a extended and severe economic depression [highly unlikely] : You will not see any sort of revolution in your lifetime or probably even your children's lifetimes.

      June 18, 2014 at 8:48 am |
  7. cramerjean

    This whole article just states something we all know. The real question is what's the solution?

    June 16, 2014 at 10:05 am |
    • Phil

      How to fix polarization? I can suggest some partial solutions.
      – First, eliminate gerrymandering. An impartial commission should set riding boundaries based on census data. That will help reduce "the primary is the election" syndrome.
      – Second, end the for-profit sector's monopoly on the media. It is *much* more profitable to tell people what they want to hear than to do the homework required to get it right. Some way of keeping the for-profit sector honest, such as a publicly funded arms-length broadcaster dedicated to careful, professional journalism, would help.
      – Third - and I hate to say this - bring back earmarks. While corrupt, they used to be the currency of compromise.

      June 17, 2014 at 7:30 pm |
  8. Joeseph Eclaire


    Unlike the comment right above yours that says everything must be done to prevent the civil war that is coming, I see the solution as burn this sham of a nation down and create a real Democracy from the ashes.

    Study the history of who the people we're who con the peasants into a revolution and then once achieved separation from Great Brittan went on to steal, murder and con their way into a nation.
    That fact that the average American thinks we live under a true Democracy should tell you how good the con has worked all these years.

    America was never design for 'we the people'..

    June 16, 2014 at 10:13 am |
  9. idiotusmaximus

    Is America dangerously divided?


    June 16, 2014 at 10:25 am |
    • Trevor

      How does it feel to be the poster child for the very reason we're divided? "Leadership" is certainly not a word that should EVER appear on your resume...

      June 17, 2014 at 12:07 pm |
    • John

      LIBtards are uneducated fools. LMAO you're nothing but a lib drone.

      June 19, 2014 at 11:22 am |
  10. idiotusmaximus

    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.................

    THIS is TRUE...THE DIFFERENCE BEING.....the fear based conservatives/Evangelicals are usually very religious and secretly want a Theocracy that everyone will be force to live by while the liberals want an open creative free society where everyone can live as the wish within the laws of the land.

    June 16, 2014 at 10:33 am |
    • American made

      True Christians do not desire to rule and make the USA an theocracy. People have free will and I for one can respect that. We have to unite as a nation and turn this around. We can sit on these forums all day and it will not change anything. Time to do what the law allows and make our voices heard in Washington. The leaders that refuse to represent the people of the United States can be recalled or voted out. I am also tired of capitol hill threatening law suits or impeachment against the president. I challenge them to follow through or shut up. Crying wolf always back fires and they wonder how they have lost credibility with the people?

      July 3, 2014 at 11:57 pm |
  11. The Entire GOP Platform In A Single Paragraph

    The GOP Prayer/Mantra/Solution: Dear God...With your loving kindness, help us to turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then, with your guidance and compassion, we will whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. God...Grant us the knowledge to then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. God...Give us the strength during our speeches to repeatedly yell........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!..........and........GET RID OF SS AND MEDICARE!!!
    In your name we prey (purposely misspelled, or is it?)........Amen

    June 16, 2014 at 1:32 pm |
    • Stigma

      Nice that you believe in prayer. I am sure you are without fault and therefore can throw these stones at others. Too bad you cannot handle differing viewpoints and principles. Oh, I forgot you have all the answers. By the way what are your solutions?! Doubt that you have the capacity to love anyone else because your heart overflows with hate.

      June 16, 2014 at 9:02 pm |
      • You don't understand the post

        It's not me that hates. It's the GOP. Get it? Probably not. GOPTards are too stupid.

        June 18, 2014 at 9:52 am |
  12. chri§§y

    Spot on @ Tired of Paying your 2:38 post! Now WHO are you conversing with anyway???

    June 16, 2014 at 3:11 pm |
  13. chri§§y

    Correction. I meant your 2:28 post

    June 16, 2014 at 11:06 pm |
  14. Micaiah

    I want to thank all the new agencies out there for this polarization. You all have done an excellent job. Take two groups and pit them against each other to the point of civil unrest. As Benjamin Franklin once said if we don't hang together now we will each hang separately later.

    June 17, 2014 at 2:42 am |
  15. Micaiah

    correction: news agencies

    June 17, 2014 at 2:49 am |
  16. Bing De La Vega

    America is still strong a nation. Just so much in debt but it can recover easily and faster if it curtails so much waste in the government. Countless street and parking lights coast to coast are still ignored on all day long. Why? Because oil is negotiated so cheap we forgot that someday it will run out sooner. Problems in politics is not a major problem. Both the donkey and the long nose will eventually get along when the country is in peril. Larger problem is Oil and water being wasted to high heavens. One man one car still is the dumb norm. Why, automobile lobby. Why? Money. Is Detroit to be blamed? NO! You spoiled Americans continue to contribute wasteful habit.

    June 17, 2014 at 3:00 am |
  17. Micaiah

    We have to be practical at this point. I think you can disagree on social and geopolitical subjects and still be respectful. The solution starts in each one of us and how we treat each other on a daily basis. Logically, we can assume that a nation cannot survive as a all powerful centralized government nor as a loose-knitted collection of states. Nationally, we should encourage and select nonpartisan professionals such as doctors, teachers, nurses, policemen, small business owners, firefighters...etc to represent us. These individuals most likely would not be of the mind to run to a corner and lob profane names at the group of individuals opposite them in a legislative environment. I am a follower of Jesus Christ and am not taught by Him to hate other people nor elevate myself above them. I make my share of mistakes as we all do. I disagree with gay marriage and abortion but don't hate people that disagree with me. I love them. I see the things people say to each other some of which claim to love the Lord and it breaks my heart.

    June 17, 2014 at 3:14 am |
  18. Harry Legg

    It really doesn't matter if everybody disagrees as it seems on these posts as long as we have the strongest military on this planet. Maybe the next president will have a wise and fully functioning brain and if not we will still have a military with the biggest and baddest toys. So when the terrorists pull off another 9/11 we will just level a couple of more countries but maybe this time we should let them smolder in the dust and let them rebuild on their own. Playing nice with Muslims is not the answer.

    June 17, 2014 at 7:50 am |
  19. cacique

    Division can be described like this:
    It comes to mind that one dream Nebuchadnezzar had in which he saw a great statue made of gold, silver, copper, iron, but that had feet made of clay. It was a powerful looking statue, but the clay feet were not able to support the weight of the statue which came tumbling down in pieces. Sad. Our country shows some parallelism with said statue. There is a section of the people who are cast in gold: politicians and the wealthy, silver the scientists and artists, copper the professionals, iron the military, and clay the blue collars, the workers, the ones producing for the rest to consume. But poverty and necessity are not strong enough to support all the luxury and desires of the ones on top and sooner or later the whole thing will break into dust.

    Divided? You bet. But not only in red and blues... that would be way too simplistic.

    June 17, 2014 at 12:09 pm |
  20. SLY

    True it is getting worst and that is sad. I wish people would just focus on the issues and not the parties.

    June 17, 2014 at 1:33 pm |
  21. johnny

    The threat to America's safety and security will in future not come from outside – it will be from within its own Army and even Navy personnel. The signs are all there , a Major (of all persons) killing 13 American soldiers, and other cases of solders throwing down their weapons to join the 'enemy' . And there are the American mercenaries in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan who could return home one day to attack American cities .


    Isn't it because these military personnel are finally seeing the light of the whole deceit. They are discovering for themselves the useless and wasteful wars they have been fighting in the name of 'democracy or freedom'.

    June 18, 2014 at 2:08 am |
    • Joeseph Eclaire

      Over simplified.
      Every conflict has seen it's soldiers you mention.
      WW 2 had far more desertions than even Vietnam. It got so bad President Eisenhower had one executed to set an example. (and it worked)

      If we face any problems from these soldiers in the future it will not be because they saw the light as you make mention, it will be because they we're low lives even before they joined. Just like college today where they are letting anyone in who can hold a pencil the military is as well.

      We got gang bangers, , petty criminals supremacist/ anti-government militia sympathizers even felons I would suspect. But then every conflict in America's history has attracted the low lives. Your Major down in Texas was a radical brainwashed Muslim.

      No, the biggest threat to America's safety and security as well as it's economic viability will be from those powers behind the scenes the one the public never see's. The worlds threat comes from the religious pimps hiding behind Allah.

      June 18, 2014 at 5:24 am |
  22. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    America is essentially divided between two different groups, ie; those who think and see the stupidity of our aggressive foreign policies and those who don't think at all!

    June 18, 2014 at 8:32 am |
  23. Vern

    Why do the media twist everything, including this topic? It is simple, they are totally subsidized by the system remaining as it is. If we are divided we can't agree to change and the status quo remains. Who gets the money for all the air time and advertising our corporations so freely hand out to politicians and then write off from their tax liability? (Which means we all are subsidizing this ourselves), it is the media. And then the corporations get a double benefit of legislative influence while we lowly voters simply have less and less say in the way our government works and for who it works. But don’t be too quick to blame the corporations, they simply are working to make profits for the shareholders, which is legal and can be good.
    I am an independent but I do think the Tea Party was correct in concept, it was just twisted by the media into something I don’t think it was intended to be. But the media can use what they have created to keep us divided. What was the Boston Tea Party about? Taxation without representation, and the UK’s big business unfair influence over the colonies and its citizens.
    We simply need to find ways to agree on simple fairness policy adjustments and voting rights enhancements to slowly take back and rebuild our democracy of the people, by the people, for the people. If we try to do it in a day, it will fail. PS, when CEO’s start going to jail for crime, I will then perhaps consider them people, until then sorry justices, I disagree with you.

    June 18, 2014 at 9:03 am |
  24. jerry9997

    The number of liberals has gone up as the number of welfare programs has increased in size and scope. Food Stamp recipients have gone from 27 to 48 million recipients over the past 6 years, even as the unemployment rate has dropped from 10% to 6.3% as people do not leave a free lunch once it starts. A lot more extra money to buy drugs every month and you can use someone else's social security number and get even more.
    The number of conservatives has increased because taxpayers are sick and tired of paying for the 124 welfare programs congress has passed.

    June 18, 2014 at 10:57 am |
  25. chri§§y

    You need a whole lot more than just a social security number to be able to collect your social security "benefits"! And i dont know WHY they call it "benefits" because it isnt! Its your money that youve paid in, not a hand out!

    June 18, 2014 at 11:35 am |
  26. DeadPatriot

    Light vs Dark

    June 18, 2014 at 2:56 pm |
  27. DerBaron

    Loons always make the headlines but the housing debacle really has destabilized American society a bit. One of our central myths (that a house never loses it's value) has been shattered and with it, our suburban interpretation of Jeffersonian imagery. Instead of maybe learning the skills to rehabilitate abandoned properties, learning to buy low/sell high, ... most want to blame a boogeyman.

    June 18, 2014 at 8:33 pm |
  28. capamerica

    A politicians job is to find a middle ground for the people they represent as well as the country as a whole. Sadly our politicians have forgotten they are there for the people, not themselves. The people have forgotten that "United we stand divided we fall" comes before any political affiliation because we are one nation undivided. Perhaps a middle of the road 3rd party is a sound answer.

    June 19, 2014 at 2:29 am |
  29. John

    LIBtards are ruining this country. They stand for everything wrong with this world. Donkey (Lib) followers are uneducated fools.

    June 19, 2014 at 11:20 am |
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