Study: Polarization at highest level in 25 years
June 5th, 2012
11:35 AM ET
6 years ago

Study: Polarization at highest level in 25 years

(CNN) – Bitter political fights, now considered commonplace in the U.S. Congress and on the campaign trail, may be an indication to most Americans that polarization is high among our elected officials.

But even among the country as a whole, Americans are more divided along political lines than they have been in 25 years. Political differences now divide Americans more than race, education level, income, gender and religion. And, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center, the political divide spiked during the last decade, during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

- Follow the Ticker on Twitter: @PoliticalTicker

- Check out the CNN Electoral Map and Calculator and game out your own strategy for November.

The survey looked at differences between Republicans and Democrats over the past quarter century, comparing the partisan gaps on issues like labor unions and the environment to ideological gaps between people of different gender, religion, race and class level.

While the gender, religious, class and race differences remained relatively consistent in the survey, the gaps between Republicans and Democrats widened considerably to record levels.

"As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years," the Pew report stated. "Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides."

The biggest increase in political polarization came in "government scope and performance" – the gap in 1987 between Democrats and Republicans on that issue was 6 points; in 2012 the gap is 33 points. On immigration, which Pew began asking about in 2002, the gap increased from 4 points to 24 points. And on the environment, which Pew started measuring in 1992, the gap went from 5 points to 39 points.

Members of the two parties were most divided on a social safety net for the poor – a 41 point gap has opened between Republicans and Democrats on the issue, a jump from 23 points in 1987.

That spike is explained by a drop in the number of Republicans who agreed that "It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves." In 1987, 62% of Republicans held that view, compared to 40% who feel that way today.

Democrats have also shifted ideologically since Pew began taking the survey 25 years ago. In 1987, 86% of Democrats said they "have old-fashioned values about family and marriage." Today 60% hold that stance.

In their report, Pew explained that changing party demographics can partly explain the growing polarization – they note the Republican Party is dominated by conservatives, rather than moderates, and that the number of liberal Democrats is growing to match the number of moderate Democrats.

But independents are also divided, the study explained.

"While many Americans have given up their party identification over the past 25 years and now call themselves independents, the polarization extends also to independents, most of whom lean toward a political party," the report stated. "Even when the definition of the party bases is extended to include these leaning independents, the values gap has about doubled between 1987 and 2012."

Also see:

Barrett says Obama visit would have been distraction

Veep contenders in the spotlight this week

Biden to grads: Don't get cynical

Filed under: Democrats • Republicans
soundoff (133 Responses)
  1. Wire Palladin, S. F.

    It is hard to bring the country together when the GOP attacks women, the poor, Hispanics, Blacks, workers, unions, college students, veterans, seniors, entitlements, and anyone who is not a teavangelical.

    June 5, 2012 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  2. The REAL Truth...

    Yeah, really tough when the Grand Obstructionist Party is consistently blaming the POTUS for not fixing the very mess they caused, then calling him divisive when he reaches across the aisle.. LOL. People that live in glass houses should not throw stones....

    June 5, 2012 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  3. ted

    time to drain the swamp in DC. Term limits would be good. Presidents get, if voters allow, eight years maximum. But when some senators and representatives go over 15 years (or maybe less) they lose touch with their constituents and consider the lobbyists as constituents and then the pork flows freely. Both parties are to blame. There is no accountability anymore.

    June 5, 2012 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  4. Rudy NYC

    Remember Wisconsin Governer Scott Walker's words on that video to a wealthy donor. "Divide and Conquer" That has been the modus operandi for decades. It's about time that people started to take notice.

    June 5, 2012 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  5. RealityBites

    Obama the divider, proofs in the pudding.

    June 5, 2012 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  6. sonny chapman

    It started in 1968 with Nixon's "Southern Strategy" which was predicted by LBJ when he signed Civil Rights Bills in 1964 & 1965. It was refined by Lee Atwater & his pupil, George W. Bush against Michael Dukakis with 'Willie Horton" & was perfected by Karl Rove. Thanks Repubs.,; I hope your "Victories" were worth it. You've "Divided & Conquered" quite well.

    June 5, 2012 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  7. J

    No its hard when a President who ran on uniting the country and the two parties decided to come in and ram his policies down everyones throats. The GOP didn't even have the votes to stop anything Obama wanted for his first two years so get over the excuses of the republicans obstructing. I guess your solution is give Obama everything he wants no matter what since he knows best? The guy has no experience beyond what he gained the last few years. He's more hollywood than politician.

    June 5, 2012 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  8. ABCorrection

    Wire – way to keep the divide going...

    June 5, 2012 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  9. tibs

    How can anyone think that its the governments responsiblity to take care of people who cant take care of themselves?
    The government should not take peoples money under threat of jail time so it can dole it out how it sees fit. If its important to you that certain people are "taken care of" then YOU take care of them. YOU start an organization, charity, non-profit, whatever and collect the funds through voluntary means.

    I do not think its moral to impose heavy costs on people to protect other people from their own choices. This is (supposed to be) a free society, The responisbility is on you.

    June 5, 2012 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  10. Obama 2012 - BEND Forward America, take another 4 long years of FAILURE

    It started with the 2000 election when the rabid left Democrats viciously attacked Bush after he won the election. They continued their insane jihad for 8 years and even to this day. The fact that he won in 2004 only added to their Bush Derangement Syndrome. And now Obama gets the same treatment in some respects. You reap what you sow.

    June 5, 2012 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  11. rla

    Thanks a lot Obama!!!!! I would interject that the divisions are religious, ethnic, economic, illegal vs legal, poor vs wealthy, OHHHHHHH that's all the groups that the democrats have annointed as minorities and placed one against another for ideological and political power.

    June 5, 2012 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  12. WireweirdinSF

    You must remember that the democrat liberals are wholly owned by the corrupt unions and this devisivness and polarization is very much a corrupt union tactic. If people were not brainwashed by the unions they could see through it, and do the right things, but then there would be no more unions Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would go broke and the government would actually come after them for back taxes.

    June 5, 2012 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  13. Curt

    For Wireweirdin SF – not hard to tell you're a republican. News to me that democratic liberals are owned by corrupt unions. Instead of brainwashing by unions, I guess brainwashing by bigots, churches and the 1% is ok. You're a perfecty example of why its too bad there isn't a law stating you have to pass an IQ test to be able to vote.

    June 5, 2012 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  14. Republicans - "The Not Intended to Be Factually Accurate" Party

    The divisiveness lies with the GOP, not the Democrats or President Obama.

    The press has been guilty of professional / journalistic MALPRACTICE over the past 12 years allowing the GOP free reign to lie, cheat and steal elections. Time to MAN UP media boys & girls. You`ve let the Republicans PUNK YOU into reporting FALSE equivalences between themselves & Democrats.

    The divisiveness root cause is the attitude of the GOP as evidenced by Senator McConnell`s edict within 30days of his inaguration to make Mr. Obama fail. Some of us are paying attention. For the rest of us, the DNC will have to put together a video montage and run it on Labor Day.

    June 5, 2012 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  15. Bob

    sonny chapman

    It started in 1968 with Nixon's "Southern Strategy" which was predicted by LBJ when he signed Civil Rights Bills in 1964 & 1965. It was refined by Lee Atwater & his pupil, George W. Bush against Michael Dukakis with 'Willie Horton" & was perfected by Karl Rove. Thanks Repubs.,; I hope your "Victories" were worth it. You've "Divided & Conquered" quite well


    June 5, 2012 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  16. Bob


    How can anyone think that its the governments responsiblity to take care of people who cant take care of themselves?

    So that they don't die in the streets. We are SUPPOSED to be a better country than that.

    June 5, 2012 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  17. 1crusader

    What is not factored in here, and is probably a major aspect of this polarization is right-wing media and the Internet.Sean Hannity came on the scene in the 80s.Rush Limbaugh, whose altar the right bows to, became a national radio personality in the early 90s.There are others , but these 2 , along with with the advent of Fox News, with its slanted and distorted reporting; have all served to divide the country.

    June 5, 2012 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  18. HCX

    Hey tibs: there are programs in place for a reason, to help care of the physically disabled, the mentally disabled and the poor children that no one wants to look after. Yes, there are some abusers of the system but those that truly need outnumber the frauds.

    "How can anyone think that its the governments responsiblity to take care of people who cant take care of themselves?"
    Seriously? You wrote that?? When was the last time you donated to a charity besides your own household? People don't donate. They say they don't have the money, the time, the patience or that it isn't their responsibility (like you) or they have no humanity in their hearts so the government said, "Fine, then we'll do it and you will pony up a fair share". Reforming the system is a better idea than doing away with it because people like you want it so. It's the MORAL thing to do.

    June 5, 2012 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  19. Four and The Door

    Obama/ Biden 2012's primary campaign strategy; Divide & Conquer.
    It would be better if they tried instead to suggest good things for America and even maybe a plan forward. This class warfare tangent is unproductive at best.

    Romney 2012

    June 5, 2012 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  20. B.

    The rich and powerful are now making their cynical power-play to absolutely control the government,state and federal.
    The Supreme Court has opened the flood gates for corporations to BUY it AlLL and are well on their way to complete control if the people do not stop it now!

    Uncontrolled money and power will demoralize the citizens and destroy this Democracy as we know it.

    June 5, 2012 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  21. dignityall

    Remember is it real or is it memorex?

    How much of this is a reflection of increased sensationalism of the press?

    Who is profitting?

    June 5, 2012 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  22. dignityall

    America lives in a void of splendid isolation no longer.

    June 5, 2012 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  23. Rupert Murdoch = Josef Goebbels

    Don't feel bad GOTPers, a lot of smart Germans were tricked into believing it was their patiotic duty to hate diversity, too.

    Survey began in 1987.

    Fox broadcasting company with primetime news launched Oct 1986.
    Fox "news" channel – 24 hrs/day of "news" – launched Oct 1996.

    Gap between R's and D's in "govt scope" 6 pts then, 33 pts now.
    In "immigration" 4 pts then, 24 pts now.
    On "environment" 5 pts then, 39 pts now.
    On "social safety net for poor Americans" 23 pts then, 41 points now.

    Looks like the FOX Reichpublican Propaganda Ministry has been extremely effective!

    June 5, 2012 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  24. Woman In California

    Those "political differences" you speak of were already there just waiting for chance to burst out – but go ahead and blame Obama if it makes you feel good.

    June 5, 2012 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  25. Four and The Door

    ...Uncontrolled money and power will demoralize the citizens and destroy this Democracy as we know it.
    Each voter still has the power to make their own selections. But I am worried about the nation's $16 trillion ( and growing ) debt load taking away our choices. This is the greatest threat to the survival of American democracy as we know it.

    June 5, 2012 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6