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. Rat dog

    Congress is doing a top notch job. They are doing exactly what they are supposed to do... Divide us, that is how they maintain their power and wealth. What scares the hell out of them is if most of us united for the better of our past, present, and future generations. But that will never happen will it?...

    June 15, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
    • Rat dog

      I'd like to add to this that that is a great thing then we can be divided (disagree) on certain issues. And in agreement on other issues. Many a men and women and children have died for that right and we should honor it for what it is. It's just that the way that the division (disagreement) is used to move us like pawns on a chess board that bothers me...

      June 15, 2014 at 9:51 pm |
  2. chri§§y

    And @ Thomas you wanta know who will keep them in check? We The People...thats who! Because we are fed up with their "business as usual" politics! They presently are nothing but high end welfare recipients! They dont give a damn about the working class americans...the ones who pay the majority of taxes in this country! Only their special interest groups and their ever growing bank accounts!!!

    June 15, 2014 at 9:39 pm |
  3. floydhowardjr

    Divided? We were in 1776 too! The tsunami cometh!!

    June 15, 2014 at 9:39 pm |
    • Chris

      I would relate it more to 1861... except the parties are the complete opposite of what they were back then. Civil War Republicans are more like modern day Democrats (large government, equality, etc) and Civil War Democrats are more closely aligned with modern day Republicans (small government, states/individual rights, resent taxes). This "flip" occurred somewhere during the Civil Rights movement.

      June 15, 2014 at 10:14 pm |
    • steve hammill

      I'm only good for cover fire now, but it is time for blood or we will lose the USA as I know it.

      June 15, 2014 at 10:17 pm |
      • littleourkie

        I so agree with you. Civil War Now!!

        June 15, 2014 at 10:21 pm |
  4. Roscoe

    One of the byproducts of a messy democracy is that of unending debate. It comes with the territory. One could say it has gotten worse but then perhaps we have only gotten more democratic. Changing demographics are partially to blame as is disproportionate wealth distribution and any number of other factors which creep in from time to time. Sometimes it takes a world war or a 911 to make us forget our differences and unite. The important thing is that we never stop fighting for freedom.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:43 pm |
  5. LavandarMist

    Any Republican willing to finance another endless war and unwilling to extend universal health coverage or rebuild infrastructure for everyone in the U.S. are similarly situated to a QB running for the wrong goal. Yet, they strongly and wrongly continue to run in this direction. What use are they to anyone? What does it say about the people who support them?

    June 15, 2014 at 9:44 pm |
    • BubbaShakur

      Do you mean the Wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Northern Africa and now Iraq again? Those Wars? Who is financing Those Wars?

      June 15, 2014 at 10:24 pm |
  6. Dee

    Obama should have been there Great Uniter and all he did was make dislike of whites worse. What a sad, wasted opportunity.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
  7. Ferris

    Amazing that Mr. Miks did not touch on HOW we got to this place. Obviously our news media (MSNBC & FOX) has failed their viewers by cherry picking facts to suite their audience's political views. This is not okay. The FCC has failed in it's duty to regulate the media. They should create a set of journalistic standards that must be met if you are going to call yourself a "news" station.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
    • king Repub

      CNN is the worst when it comes to being bias. They are in the bag for Obama

      June 15, 2014 at 10:16 pm |
  8. Andrew

    The problem is that people nowadays seem more content to just sit on the party line and vote whatever the party line is. People associate themselves with 'I'm a liberal/progressive' or 'I'm a conservative' and are defined by that more than they are define by what they genuinely have educated themselves on and believe in. So many people I talk to from both sides now just sit there and spew the party-line, often contradicting one of their political stances. If you disagree with them, then all of a sudden you become the 'progressive communist' or 'conservative nutjob', even if there is a lot of common ground.

    I am a registered Independent, and I find myself torn between the parties. I am a Christian, believe in gun rights and want to see immigration reform. However, I also believe that gay couples (while I am morally opposed to calling it marriage, which is a religious term), ought to have the same benefits and rights as anyone else and should not face any discrimination. I also believe that abortion is a woman's choice, as government should not legislate morality. I have a very hard time voting in elections now. I just wish that more people would research individual issues and decide what they believe based upon their own research and morals as opposed to spouting what the latest liberal/conservative talk show said.

    I find it very sad and dangerous that people are voting now with emotion rather than thought. I also find it sad that people are voting because of what their ideological leaders are saying, rather than forming their own opinions based off of their own research and life experience.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:47 pm |
    • Mark johnson

      Wouldn't it be wonderful if there weren't 'parties' but just issues. If people had to research people they were going to vote for rather than just check a box R or D?

      June 15, 2014 at 9:59 pm |
  9. Burgent

    Shouldn't we be asking Carlos Danger what he thinks?

    June 15, 2014 at 9:49 pm |
  10. saffrondawg

    I love Fareed. He has 2 posts today that are sophisticated and thoughtful and accurate. But he does not close the loop.

    So here's the thing. The conservatives and liberals are in a fight about what is the best long term course for the future of this country. At the end of the day, the divisions are so great that only one side can be correct. The other side is just wrong. There really is no way to split the baby. We go one way or the other, and the only question is how fast or how slow, not some middle route. As in the New Deal election, there was a side that said stay the course, stick with our traditional values and theories, and the other side said that the traditional approach had failed and we must evolve. One side was right and one side was wrong. If you want to understand the depth of the division, one side still says Roosevelt was wrong and we are reaping the whirlwind of his falacies. They think the world is 6000 years old, that Kennedy was a communist, and that poor people are lazy moochers. There was a faction that thought the same thing in 1930. It is about the correct course or the incorrect course. You have to pick a side. There is no middle any more. The Cantor election proves this.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:50 pm |
    • Mark johnson

      I hope you aren't serious? This is exactly what is wrong with this country. On every issue there's probably some element of both sides having merit. Generally people use logic to make decisions and probably most would agree that the brain trust on both sides of the aisle is well stacked. If you disagreed, you would be ignorant and sadly mistaken – in fact, it would be very interesting for you to argue which side actually has more intellectuals. Regardless, it is people like you, who lack the understanding to comprehend all sides of an issue that are truly causing problems for this country.

      I also don't appreciate your stereotypes. I'm sure people on both sides could stereotype the other to depreciate the other side and make their opinion seem less valid. How about we try and grow up out of elementary school and have a reasonable discussion like adults.

      June 15, 2014 at 9:57 pm |
      • saffrondawg

        You miss the point. People with your POV don't nominate or elect people in this country any more. You are maybe 25% of the voting population and you split along party lines when it comes to voting. Independents don't nominate anybody. Libertarians don't elect anybody. The electoral system in this country compels 2 party politics. When a party fragments and a 3rd party emerges (Ross Perot), the result is that the other party wins. The electoral process is controlled by 2 polarized sides and some puppet masters that manipulate both sides. There are a few states where open minded moderates have the ability to influence elections, but there are not enough of them to have any traction in congress or really even is state legislatures. We are close to the situation in Weimar where the electoral process was controlled by the Nazis and Communists. The people in the middle who tried to stay above the fray and who preached tolerance and compromise were eventually ground up between the two factions. You need to be on one side or the other so that you will have any sayso in the future. There is no middle left. Either the liberals or conservatives will determine the agenda – you need to be on one side or the other for you to have any influence.

        June 15, 2014 at 10:37 pm |
    • dgoren1

      Sorry, but you're off base. I vote Republican. I support gay marriage (or at least don't care if they get married or not), I believe in evolution and I am not very religious. I am pro-choice, though personally do not like abortion. These things do not effect me, but I do not support the fiscal policies of the Democratic Party. The growth of the government and our deficit is appalling, and Democrats are just fine with it continuing. Political Correctness has run amok and liberals seem to hate America. I vote based on the issues, and it I the FISCAL issues that matter to me, and the Democrats make very poor choices, in my opinion, so I support Republicans. I have issues with them, too, but they are the lesser of two evils. I would rather a Libertarian win but my vote for them just helps the Democrats.

      June 15, 2014 at 10:22 pm |
      • saffrondawg

        See response to kingrepublican. It is not your party anymore. But I commend you for not giving up and hoping someday to get your party back. It has been hijacked. Dirkson – even Reagan. They would not be welcome.

        June 15, 2014 at 10:42 pm |
    • king Repub

      Gee, i do not think the earth is 6000 years old. I am a Republican and just like my republican friends we all have graduate degrees. We live in liberal Massachusetts. None of us are devout Christians, some are atheist and some Jewish. We are financially secure and are community oriented.

      You need to get out of your head that Republicans are uneducated and live in the south. Actually, with the increase in Latino immigration new democrat voters tend to be very devout christian, have little education and are poor.

      So get your facts straight.

      June 15, 2014 at 10:24 pm |
      • saffrondawg

        All Republicans are not uneducated and live in the south. Some are uneducated and live in the west and the midwest. And some are educated and live in the north, but they don't elect anybody.

        June 15, 2014 at 10:38 pm |
  11. Aurthor

    Yes and the tea party can not handle the truth they see in the news.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:51 pm |
  12. Mark johnson

    Just split the country 50/50, everyone would be happy. Why are we arguing and fighting internally, Abraham Lincoln said a house divided cannot stand, so let's just get it over with and split it into two and start over. Democrats can set up the country they want and republicans can set up the country they want – perfect solution.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:51 pm |
  13. Guest

    Boring. Both parties are full of Authoritarians who merely disagree on the finer details of exactly how far the state should intrude into our lives.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:51 pm |
  14. Andre Berger

    Basically, we're screwed!

    June 15, 2014 at 9:52 pm |
  15. greg

    The best leveling tool is removing gerrymandering as a tool for political parties to enhance their power at the expense of the democratic process. To get that done however takes broad common agreement among voters of both political stripes because few politicians will be willing to give up one of their favorite means of ensuring their continued power absent constant pressure to do so. It's in the best interests of the country to have balanced districts.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:56 pm |
  16. cal

    When the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch pass on, the nutty half will come back to its senses. They're old.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:56 pm |
  17. Bel

    I think you will find that many of those in both parties that are more middle of the ground have left the parties and become independent. If the parties we have now refuse to work together, it would not surprise me to find voters looking for alternatives. Political parties have died out before and new ones have risen. Time will tell.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:56 pm |
  18. Julie

    It's very sad. We seem destined to become as crazy as the Shia and Sunni.
    I'm a Democrat and I live in a state where I'm liable to be called a :baby killer" if I say so. But I'm one of the 4 in 5 who has views that are sometimes liberal and sometimes conservative – no one has a corner on wisdom.
    Limbaugh, Beck and Colter et al have certainly done a good job of poisoning the Americcan well. So has social media – (ah – there's one of those "conservative" things, eh?) We are losing shared experience and thus our sense of being a single community. conservatives expose themselves only to like thinkers and so do many liberals. The middle, traditional media is viewed as friends of no one. Or tools of the opposition. Recent Supreme court decisions like the one giving increased leverage to the wealthy are also to blame. We have closed our minds to differing opinions. To education and allowed religion to become a true opiate.
    May the 4s be with us and prevail because the will lead us the way of every penny ante ditch of a country that can't get along with anyone who's a different religion or ethnicity or political cast.

    June 15, 2014 at 9:57 pm |
  19. Eric Daniels

    You want to know what's wrong with America? That is a very simple we have corrupt leadership across both parties whom have strayed from the very principals the country was founded. It isn't the direct fault of any single president or congress but it has been a fundamental shift from the foundation we built America. A house will remain only as long as it is rooted on a solid foundation, and if it shifts off that foundation it will crumble and fall to pieces.

    Much is the same for America after years upon years of attempting to satisfy every special interest group, largely because of the vast amounts of money poured into their attempts and the huge profits politicians stand to gain. Yes money is the root of all evil, and it is manifesting itself in today's society wherein our leaders have destroyed the very teachings that once inspired our youth to strive to be good people. Our idea of a good person today is someone who is financially secure. Jesus was far from wealthy, in fact he was rather poor and worked as a carpenter. Money has zero to do with whether or not your a good person, in fact after working as a mechanic I found that I could be much more wealthy if I lied and made problems that didn't exist. Yes I would be richer but would I be a better person for doing so? My boss would always tell me to leave my conscience at home we are here to make money not to care about the customers. I took offense to that statement and soon quit, and yes I'm poor but in my heart I know I did the right thing even though in my absence I'm sure someone will eagerly come in and do the dirty deeds of misleading the customers.

    I could care less about your party of choice, what I care about is the fact that over 50% of congress have net worth of 1 million or more. You see what has happened is politicians have lied and misled Americans to increase their wealth not to better American life. Not everyone of course, but if there are 10 good people in a congress of 100 it's pretty clear that those 10 won't have much power over the 90. What is really incredible is Obama has clearly misled the American people and Americans continue to allow it. Yes if I lied to you and told you that your car needed a repair that it really didn't you would demand your money back, but when it's your freedoms, and rights that are being taken away that is fine as long as I don't touch your money. Yeah America is divided and a great deal of Americans are confused and believe supporting your party is more important than supporting principles. I will vote either party but if they refuse to do the things they promised they'd fight for then well I will not support them, democrats will support Obama regardless of what he did to America, and that is what divides the parties in DC. Support shouldn't be given solely because of the membership of a party, or the color of the skin, but rather support should be given based on principles alone.

    God Bless America

    June 15, 2014 at 9:58 pm |
    • Briarlind

      You had me until you started bashing Obama! Yes, I am a Democrat, but also someone who uses knowledge and intelligence to make determinations on issues. Usually, most of the commentators can't help bashing one side or the other, eventually. What is wrong with giving credit where credit is due? To both sides...Democratic and Republican presidents get some things right and some wrong. If you think that every elected official can make good on every promise in this environment of big $$ lobbyists and partisan politics you are ignorant and delusional. As has been said in earlier there is no environment of compromise. I really thought you were making some good sense and thoughtful comments...too good to be true.

      June 15, 2014 at 10:31 pm |
  20. stevie68a

    Religion is the most divisive thing there is.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:03 pm |
  21. concerned

    Our media has gotten more and more dishonest and biased since the revocation of the fairness doctrine.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:05 pm |
  22. BorisRoberts

    J, very good response, I agree completely. In my opinion, the 2 parties are one and the same. Oh, sure, throw in an arguement about God, Gays, Abortion, Religion, Global Climate Change, you know, all the things that government shouldn't be involved with, and people will HATE, just absolutely HATE each other. Neighbors for 30 years, will HATE each other over NOTHING, because one of them will say they listen to Rush Limbaugh and the other thinks Hillary Clinton is ok. And that's the way they want to keep it. They do not want us banding together and fixing the real issues this country has, immigration, getting us out of other waes, instead of some companies profitting massively from them, figure out our energy issues for the near and far off future, the list goes on and on. How about finding a cure for cancer? How far would that have gone instead of $2 Trillion dollars flushed down the toilet that is the middle east. Instead of political infighting over Solyndra and money being spent on Solar Research, and making it a political issue instead of an energy issue, why not work together instead of working against each other as hard as you possibly can.

    Party politcis is absolutely disgusting. But the liberals.....But the's a mental disorder.....they are all racists. Just like little kids.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:05 pm |
    • saffrondawg

      Government should not be involved in protecting a woman's right to an abortion, to influence climate change? And you consider yourself a moderate I guess. right?

      June 15, 2014 at 10:47 pm |
  23. Wizard1234

    This country is divided along political lines, economic lines, ethnic background lines, age lines and gender lines. Dangerous? Not so much but it would be better if the divisiveness was tamped down. I would like to tamp the Repugnicants.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:07 pm |
  24. iceload

    Are the dems and repubs divided on jobs? No neither party discusses it. Are the dems and repubs divided runaway healthcare costs the tapeworm destroying this nation? No they don't discuss healthcare cost containment. Are the dems and repubs divided on the escalating college loans, escalating college costs merry-go-round? No neither party discusses this either. So they fight over things that will keep the turnips arguing.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:11 pm |
  25. Jerry Okamura

    Translation: we are in serious trouble?

    June 15, 2014 at 10:12 pm |
  26. chri§§y

    Spot on @ saffrondawg and @ wilbodave! But ya know the end of the day...We The People will remember! And as Eric Cantor recently discovered...come voting time, we wont forget and hopefully the citizens will do their DUTY and VOTE!

    June 15, 2014 at 10:16 pm |
  27. chri§§y

    So WHY do you visit the CNN site @ king repub?

    June 15, 2014 at 10:19 pm |
  28. Cole Younger Wood

    My "gray" uniform is ready.......

    June 15, 2014 at 10:23 pm |
  29. Pat Henry

    When will our military do its duty and remove the clown polluting the White House?

    June 15, 2014 at 10:25 pm |
  30. no repukelicans allowed

    We need normal people now. Not republicans.

    June 15, 2014 at 10:27 pm |
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