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.

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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."

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Filed under: Democrats • Republicans
soundoff (133 Responses)
  1. Malory Archer

    Why is it that the tighty righties always talk about things being "rammed down their throats"? Seems kinda perverse if you ask me. President Obama should just use the same soundbites the previous occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue used when he was ram-rodding us: MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY, or my favorite: IF YER NOT WITH ME, YER AGIN' THE TROOPS.

    June 5, 2012 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  2. Regina

    Republicans consistently attack the very core values of our country, equality before the law, and of opportunity. they want to make sure that women, minorities, the poor and the young are kept in their place and disenfranchised. all under the (mis)guise of religion and free market ideology.

    June 5, 2012 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  3. Malory Archer


    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.


    Right on Tibs (great name BTW – I have a cat named Tibs)! With all the $$$ the Citizens United ruling has allowed into elections, it's proof positive that corporations (remember, mittens says they're people too) should be able to take care of themselves. It's long past time! If they can't take care of themselves they should just be allowed to fade away and make room for Mom & Pop's return.

    June 5, 2012 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  4. mikeM

    Partisanship? Both parties are a joke. The issues that divide us are basic values: Liberal vs Conservatives. The issues that divide us don't lend themselves to compromise. For example, gay marriage, abortion, illegal aliens.

    June 5, 2012 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  5. Sue

    Go and look at the new Gallup poll that was just released today...Romney is leading over Obama for the middle class voters and upper income voters ($35,000 and up). Romney also has the lead over Obama for white voters in ALL income levels, including lower-income voters. It seems that white voters are tired of Obama continuosly playing the "race" card in regard to all issues/matters. And, this same poll is showing that Independents are going for Romney, not Obama (by at least 8 points). Obama only has the lower income minority voters (those making less then $35,000) and the minority voters in all income levels. But, even some of these voters will begin to see the light. If Romney and the superpacs keep running ads in all swing states about the "real" Obama and what his policies have done to our economy/country- some of these voters will wake up as well. The majority of voters want independence, self worth, jobs, and the ability to succeed-–not welfare and foodstamps.

    June 5, 2012 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  6. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    President Obama, the greatest President and Commander'in-Chief in our nation's history just took out another leading al Qaeda operative in Abu Yahya, the No 2 man in al Qaeda! You wanna know why the President is having alot more success on the war on terrorism as opposed to lowering the unemployment rate? Well, its as simple as 1,2,3! See, President Obama doesn't need teapublicans vote to execute his foreign agenda. But at home, unless he gets the full support of all of congress, bills get stalled and so does our economy! But with God's help, all teapublicans will be voted out of office for soon! And as a reminder, Obama got Osama! Ha, eat your heart out teapublicans!

    June 5, 2012 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  7. Donkey Party

    You right-wing sub-humans are something else. How you function on a day to day basis deserves a kudos, given the fact your levels of ignorance, illiteracy, and delusion are off the charts.

    June 5, 2012 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  8. ironman59

    Of course it is worse than ever. You have the tea-gansta's that bullied their way into power with their religious & unmanageable expectations. Regardless of how much something was needed (i.e. passing a budget) they said NO if everyone of their demands were not met to the letter. That is not how life works, it is about compromise. Compromise is what built the country.

    In addition people who have lost their jobs, pensions and retirement are tired of corporate greed. Those same people are also tired of the social agenda of the far-right getting into government with their religious doctrine. Marriage, abortion, birth control and a miriad of other issues are not for religion to dictate. We see the problem with the extreme right in the protests of extremists at military funerals. While I despise the fact that we went to war, those who have fallen deserve respect. Yet the far right can't compromise even on respect.

    June 5, 2012 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  9. Nuihc

    I read a lot of posts saying Obama inherited the economic crisis from Bush. Something that makes me go hmmmmmmm....The economy was doing great, DOW up to 1400, housing prices up, gas prices, well more tolerable than they are now, until the democrats took over the congressional purse strings in 2007, then this "recession" started. DOW plummeting, gas prices through the roof, house prices dropping off a cliff. Soooo, explain how Obama inherited the economic crisis from Bush again? Looks to me like Obama's own party did it to him.

    June 5, 2012 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  10. DJR

    In response to the article and the posts I will take a view from Europe. In recent days it has been written that Germany will rule Euro zone, so back to 1939. And America should go ahead and split, Back to 1861. N & S.

    June 5, 2012 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  11. Nuihc

    And the vitriol from the left leaning people like "donkey party" does nothing to help the divisiveness in this country.

    June 5, 2012 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  12. Mike Parent

    Marijuana Never should have been made illegal. That intentional error needs to be corrected, asap. No one should be arrested and given a criminal record because they have a different preference in regard to their intoxicant, which is much safer than the currently legal alternative.

    June 5, 2012 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  13. Obama 2012 - BEND Forward America, take another 4 long years of FAILURE

    Of course the country is polarized thanks to the Great Democrat Welfare Society! You have the half that have been suckers who have suddenly woken up and realized they are working like dogs to support the other half of the country. And now the Do Nothings, Pay Nothings are complaining that the ones that are paying aren't paying enough and demanding more!!

    June 5, 2012 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  14. Larry L

    Interesting the most divisive issues are those that cost the fat-cats nothing – like gay marriage, abortion, guns, and illegal immigration. One might think they were manipulating social conservatives for their votes without having to spend any money!

    June 5, 2012 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  15. BinaryTruth

    Polarization at highest levels in 25 years...

    And coincidentally that's about how long 24/7 cable TV news has existed.

    June 5, 2012 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  16. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Talking about polarization, what about the partisan polarization on the US Supreme court? In 2000 the Conservative Five on the US Supreme court upheld the "Hanging Chads" giving Jeb's big brother the presidency and we all saw what happened to America and the world as we are still trying to tore ourselves out of the deep freeze of failures! Fast forward to 2012 and the Conservative Five are at it once again, conspiring to undermine our democracy once more by threatening to repeal the Affordable Care Act! So lLet me see, a 219 congressional majority voted for the Affordable Care Act and now 5 Conservative Justices are threatening to reverse this legislation in historic proportion because their republican friends came up short with the vote? Is this really a democracy? What a disgrace!

    June 5, 2012 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  17. Sue

    I think that the liberals are hilarious....First, they are more worried about what Romney does with his own money-then what Obama does with theirs. And, it appears that the new Gallup poll that was released today, is showing the complete opposite of the lies that the liberals spew on a continuous basis. The majority of voters ARE waking up.....And, because they are waking up, it is not looking good for Obama's reelection!! And, just think.....this Gallup poll was taken before the voters had a chance to hear about/digest all of the news about the dismal jobs report that was just released. Imagine if Gallup would have waited 3-4 more days to do the poll.

    June 5, 2012 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  18. Copper's Donut Shoppe

    When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9.
    The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

    June 5, 2012 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  19. Wake up people

    @DJR, it looks like some want to do just that. Back to 1861 when the black man knew his place. And the chance of one becoming POTUS was -zilch.

    OBAMA 2012!

    June 5, 2012 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  20. Rosslaw

    Another Al Queda senior man taken out today. Lord knows the Republicans have the Al Queda vote locked up and the Somali pirate vote isn't far behind.

    June 5, 2012 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  21. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer


    Please try to lean a little about American politics and government then come back and comment! The Democrats won the 2007 mid-term elections and took office in January 2008. When they did so, all GWB's and the Republicans failed and misguided economic policies and budgets were still in effect all the way until President Obama took office in 2009. In 2008, over 307 congressional bills were passed by the 110th Congress and most of these bill had to do with legislation for funding for Iraqi and Afghan war veterans such as pensions, housing, healthcare. treatment for post war stress syndrome, to refurbishing Walter Reed Medical center to meet the demands of the returning veterans and so on. When the 110th Congress weren't busy with deliberating on and passing legislations to take care of our veterans and their families, they were busy deliberating on and passing legislations for Home Land Security and on other bills to deal with the war on terror, all problems GWB and the GOP created. Therefore your argument that the markets crashed when the Democrats took office in 2008 is absurd and pointless like GWB's failed and misguided policies!

    June 5, 2012 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  22. ThinkAgain

    Repubs have nothing to offer our country because all of their economic, military and foreign policies are PROVEN FAILURES, so they resort to trying to divide us, pitting neighbor against neighbor over social issues that should be decided in the privacy of one's home.

    GOP = Divide and Conquer is their strategy because they've got NOTHING ELSE.

    June 5, 2012 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  23. Darryl Cox

    Nothing gets done because we keep electing the choices that the Dem and Rep machines keep giving to us. Either far left or far right. The vast majority of Americans are actual barely left or barely right of center (as it were). If we could get past that and then act with the same self control that the President slammed the Big 3 Auto Makers for on spending more than they make .... are you kidding me. America has racked up more debt that any other country\business in the world and we are slamming a business???? Stop punishing people for working hard and making a better living. Level the tax code and get rid of tax loop holes. When we get jobs back, stop encouraging people to stay on welfare by paying them mroe than if they got as job.

    June 5, 2012 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  24. FLIndpendent

    @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."
    You hit the nail on the head. The polarization stems from these loudmouth pundits and the cable shows, Faux News being the absolute worst. It isn't the President that is dividing the country; we are responsible for the division as we allow ourselves to be duped into believing one party has all the right answers and the other is always wrong. There is good and bad on both sides and it is up to us to discern what is the truth and make informed decisions. Unfortunately, with our fast paced world, we rely on the soundbites that tend to reinforce our preconceived thoughts and don't want to open our minds to the opposite view. I'm afraid no matter who becomes President the same is going to happen as this keeps these "shows" in business. We need to fight for the truth!

    June 5, 2012 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  25. ThinkAgain

    @Nuihc: "Soooo, explain how Obama inherited the economic crisis from Bush again?"

    I'll use small word so you'll understand ... Bush cut taxes TWICE while waging two wars, something never done before in our nation's history (he also pushed through unfunded Medicare Part D). Bush also did not have the common sense or stones to raise taxes when his voodoo economics caused the Clinton surplus to go up in smoke. And this happened even as Bush kept the cost of those two wars off the books!

    When Reagan cut taxes for the rich while increasing military spending, we also got huge deficits. Unlike Reagan, who raised taxes 11 times during his two terms, Bush did not have the common sense or stones to also raise taxes.

    Bush preferred to let our economy tank under the weight of the debt. President Obama had the good sense and stones to start dealing with the reality of the cost of Bush's wars by putting them on the books and addressing the problems.

    The result? The Dow is over 12,000 (it was 7,000 when President Obama was inaugurated), we've had 26 straight months of private sector job growth (we were losing 700,000 jobs a month in the last months of Bush's presidency) and the auto industry, which folks like Mittens would have let die, have made a comeback, with GM the top auto maker in the world.

    Got it? Bush's policies stink – as does Mittens and the rest of the GOP who insist on believing in voodoo economics.

    Obama/Biden 2012 = The only sane choice.

    June 5, 2012 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
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