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. FLIndpendent

    @Sue – I hope you get your wish and Romney is elected because then you'll see how duped you truly are. If you think Romney is going to do anymore this country and for the middle class than Obama is trying to to then you have another thing coming. Why on earth would anyone in their right mind want to go back to the Bush years and the same people that ran the gov't then. Who cares about Gallup polls – Obama is going to win when the real Romney is finally exposed to all of us.

    June 5, 2012 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  2. Mike

    I most certainly agree with former president Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. If Mitt Romney is elected it will be calamitous for US.

    June 5, 2012 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  3. max


    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 |
    And there you have it ladies and gentlemen. This is the type of rhetoric this research is all about. So tell me Sue...since you are such an expert on this divide being white and all....if a white president was elected to office and a black leader in the house or senate was to vow to make his presidency a one term regardless of any policy that is put forth to help the American people how would that play in your mind? Obviously you think it's ok to obstruct the president from leading and blame him on top of that for the divide.....classic!!!

    June 5, 2012 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  4. ThinkAgain

    @Sue: "The majority of voters want independence, self worth, jobs, and the ability to succeed-–not welfare and foodstamps."

    You're such a rightwing hack! Repub policies lead to a shrinking middle class and corporate flight from our country. Take a look at the historical record and you'll see that our nation has ALWAYS fared better under Democratic administrations than the boom-bust Republicans who spend like drunken sailors, want to privatize profits and socialize failures, then blame everyone else when things invariably go wrong.

    June 5, 2012 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  5. FLIndpendent

    "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."
    So, two things come to mind here 1) if you're going to blame the Dems for the downfall of '08 then you need to blame the Repubs/Tea Partiers for the slow recovery now and also for our downgrade 2) Bush had a record # of vetoes after the Dems took over so they didn't get much passed.

    June 5, 2012 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  6. max

    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
    Um...that was Scott Walker buddy. Did you not see the video...oh forgot...Repukes do not deal in facts....just lie, lie, lie...

    June 5, 2012 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  7. Russ in Md

    "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! "

    Stand aside Rambo, Here comes Obama. Single handly taking on the bad guys. Ya right!

    June 5, 2012 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  8. Sniffit

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

    Oh shut up. Ever since Obama took office the entirety of the GOP's plan has been to create a radicalized extremist right wing group of loudmouths to give themselves the political cover for moving waaaaaaay way off to the right in order to leave Obama, who is indeed a moderate by any objective standard in reference to historical record, looking like he was way to the left of center...beacuse the shifted the appearance of where the center lies by moving waaaay way off to the right. Birthers, "secret muslim" nonsense, "death panels," ressurected McArthyist demagoguery about "socialism" without ever using the word correctly or applying the concept of socialism as it is actually defined, ramped up whining and crying about immigration solely because the election of a black POTUS finally kicked the wasps' nest of racism by reminding all of the people who believe "this is supposed to be a white people country" that it's rapidly turning brown whether they like it or not...the list is ENDLESS...and right at the very top, it's title says "our sole priority is to make Obama a one term President."

    June 5, 2012 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  9. Russ in Md

    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."

    I we are all that then you must have the intelligence of a brick at best.

    June 5, 2012 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  10. tumbleweed

    No it's lies from people like you that leads to the devisiveness. Just be honest and maybe we can start to get along. For iexample, Bush lied and 100,000's died. Obama led and BIn Laden is dead. How's that for the truth!

    June 5, 2012 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  11. Marie MD

    We have to thank mcnasty and his minions for bringing forth the she devil from AK. She started this hatred and lying and it took off from the 2008 campaign and has spread like wildfires in particular from the teapublikans and the old rethugs in congress.

    June 5, 2012 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  12. Russ in Md

    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."

    I think that sound better than "It wasn't me it was the other guy". At least Bush (a better man than Obama) stood behind what he said and took responsibility for it, good or bad.

    June 5, 2012 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  13. dnick47

    Where do you Repubs get your news? Out of a fairytale book? Yeah, you do its called Fox News.

    June 5, 2012 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  14. Russ in Md

    And no one remembers when this nation was more united under G.W. Bush than it had been since WW2. Since then the liberal division policies really kicked in.

    June 5, 2012 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  15. The Real Tom Paine


    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.
    Really? That was our master plan? To screw up the economy so we could win the White House, lose the House 2 years later, then hand it back to the plutocrats and Mitt with his well-trained digits to sign the tax cuts into place that will usher in the Millenium that Grver Norquist forsaw? 3 decades of policies that were dominated by the Right resulted in this collapse, not 4 years of Democratic rule in the Congress and 3.5 in the White House. Any effort to fix long-term systemic problems without throwing our country into a EU-style depression is going to involve time and effort, not pointless name-calling. Neither party is without blame: is it that hard to accept?

    June 5, 2012 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  16. Fuzzy maff

    Entirely owned by the Republican party. History will record it that way as well, regardless of the pathetic attempts to blame it on the Dems or assign equal blame to both parties.

    June 5, 2012 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  17. Sue

    No need to get so upset liberals.....Go and look at the Gallup poll results for yourself. The majority of voters ARE waking up.....And, because they are waking up, they are not supporting Obama!! The polls/support for Obama is only going to continue to go down, not up. This will be especially true when the Supreme Court Justices rule against Obamacare in June/July and rule that Arizona has every right to enforce the federal immigration laws in their state.

    June 5, 2012 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  18. The Real Tom Paine

    -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!!
    Never thought I would see you describing the Red States so accurately! Congratulations on the revelation they are parasites on all those hard-working liberals.

    June 5, 2012 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  19. Michael

    Obama's second term will be a disaster of high magnitude. He succeeded in polarizing the people in racism, morality, wealth and political ideology. It is not good for a country. We need a president who could bring people together.

    June 5, 2012 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  20. Lando

    My 401K was almost wiped out before President Obama took it's alive and earning. How's your's
    Republibans...what do you say..

    June 5, 2012 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  21. bill

    You can thank the GOP/Tea Party for the polarization of America. All they have wanted all along was for Obama and America to fail, the same way America failed under dubya. A good economy is bad business for the GOP, especially during an election year. The GOP will continue to spew their hate filled message and filibuster until they finally drive the last nail in the coffin of America.

    June 5, 2012 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  22. Anonymous

    "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."

    And based on that Gallup poll, why continue with the foolishness of a general election? Heck, we might just as well skip the general election entirely and move Romney into the White House today. Because if this is what you are suggesting, Sue, I'm going to have to disagree. Not only with your eagerness to allow one poll to determine a presidential race, but your naivete in thinking there isn't more "data" attached to this one poll what is being given out to the media.

    June 5, 2012 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  23. Malory Archer


    @Sue – I hope you get your wish and Romney is elected because then you'll see how duped you truly are.


    If sue gets her wish, we'll all suffer. And before any mouthbreather accuses me of being on the government dole, while I may live in a red state that gets more $$$ in federal dollars than it pays in I got my first "real" job at 14 and have been a working, taxpaying citizen for 34 years, so save your ignorance for the low-information posters at red state, drudge & real clear politics.

    June 5, 2012 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  24. The Real Tom Paine

    How's everyone's retirement funds doing today? Why would you hand it back to the folks that let the banks and investors gamble with your life's work? Of course, its just a game to them. I'm sure there will be plenty of jobs for us in our 80s, like stocking shelves at Staples. That's what we have to look forward to with the Righties in control.

    June 5, 2012 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  25. Lando

    Do you have the worry of Bin Laden and his Al Queda leaders planning another strike at the US....nope.. they were all
    wiped out...what else can you say

    June 5, 2012 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
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