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. The Real Tom Paine

    -Obama 2012 – BEND Forward America, take another 4 long years of FAILURE

    The Real Tom Paine – hard-working liberals

    Guinness Book of World Records has confirmed this is the first time that combination of words has been used in a sentence. Congrats!
    Remember that if a first-responder ever has to come to your home. I sincerely hope it does not happen soon, even to you.

    June 5, 2012 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  2. The Real Tom Paine

    -Obama 2012 – BEND Forward America, take another 4 long years of FAILURE

    I most certainly agree with former president Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. If Mitt Romney is elected it will be calamitous for US.
    And Obama and the Democrats have guaranteed it with Taxmageddon in January, 2013. Their years of economic gimmicks, tricks, smoke and mirrors will all come to an end at once and explode on Romney. That is why they will not address the problem NOW as the Republicans have been pushing for. Democrats, the party of economic IEDs that they blame on others.
    3 decades of conservative economics gave us this problem. You righties never want to pay for anything, but have been kicking the can down the road for 30 years. Keep living in la-la land about this if you want.

    June 5, 2012 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  3. SCOTO

    FOX News, Hannitys, Limbaughs – bigger threat to the American people with their divisive poison than 100 Al-Quaedas. And lining their pockets BIG TIME doing it.

    June 5, 2012 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  4. Lynda/Minnesota


    Gallup was saying this same thing throughout 2008. Back then they called it the Bradley effect. Today they're calling it the "Obama Recession".

    Same old packaging - different year.

    June 5, 2012 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
  5. Sue

    Pssstttt liberals......It is not just the Republicans who are supporting Romney, it is the majority of Independents as well. And, please stop with the "race" card--it is soooooooo 2008 and does not work any more!! A Democratic man was elected as President and FAILED miserably......And, he just so happens to be black. And, the fact that he is incompetent, clueless, worthless, etc--has nothing to do with the fact that he is a black man-–but the fact that he is not a leader/problem solver-and does not belong in the White House as President of the United States--no matter what color he is!!! In 2008, the majority of voters proved that they are not racists by voting for Obama. In 2012--the majority of voters will prove that they are not stupid/fools, by voting against Obama!!

    June 5, 2012 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  6. The Real Tom Paine


    I am tired of the whining from the liberal media and their partners in the Dem party complainging about partisanship. Does no one remember how Ronald regan was treated by them? Does anyone recall what accusations George Bush endured by the Dems? For the liberal media/Dem propaganda machine bi-partisanship is when Republicans agree with them and shut up. Thats how they were treated by Pelosi, Reid and President Obama from 2009-2010. The Dems shut the repubs out of major legislation saying "We won". Legislation like the Health Care Bill needs to be bipartisan. You need to build consensus around your ideas to attract the opposition therefore the filnal bill to stand the test of time. That is not how tghe dems did things and they paid the price at the polls in 2010 and will probably suffer the same fate in 2012.
    Read what Mr. Mourdock said when he defeated Lugar? That is the GOP definition of " bipartisanship": they have made it into a joke, even when Obama used GOP ideas in healthcare.

    June 5, 2012 04:45 pm at 4:45 pm |
  7. Happy_Days_are_here_again

    I want my MTV

    Got a blister on my thumb

    you can sing the rest....

    June 5, 2012 04:45 pm at 4:45 pm |
  8. The REAL Truth...

    @rob – some typically seriously amnesiac, deluded, revisionist version of history dood. The GOP WERE invited to the ACA talks. True to their Grand Obstructionist Party agenda, they declined. Most of ACA – in case you didn't check – is a replica of Mittens MA care. Since it came from Obama, it's now bad, despite it being rules that the GOP has been pushing for years. Please check your FACTS before you spout!

    June 5, 2012 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  9. Sniffit

    "Sniffitt,,,thank you for proving my point for me."

    My ire at the situation created by the GOP/Teatrolls does not prove your piont when the underlying substance of my post and the argument I made proves you wrong. You don't get to poke the bear and then blame the bear for getting angry and mauling you. The GOP created the Teatrolls with the express purpose of radicalizing the right wing base and playing up their resentment at the election of a black lilberal, not to mention to give themselves cover for opposing a moderate who was predictably going to propose doing things that the GOP had, in fact, supported and proposed themselves in the past. That's not hard to figure was blatant, obvious and hardly secret and they needed to do it in order to give themselves cover for opposing everything and anything that he proposed..all while calling him a "socialist" and "secret muslim" and "where's the birf surtifikate" and fabricating things like "death panels" to rile the base, play off their resentment, including race resentment, and wident he gulf between segments of the voting populace in hopes they could grab up independents.

    June 5, 2012 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  10. Happy_Days_are_here_again

    2008 – Obama vs George Bush

    2009 – Obama vs George Bush

    2010 – Obama vs George Bush

    2011 – Obama vs George Bush

    2012 – Obama vs Obama (can't blame George Bush for the past 4 years)

    2016 – Clinton ticket for sure. All the way with Hillary and Bill

    2008, if only...... We Democrates missed that opportunity just to have a place in history... Can we learn from our mistakes?

    The new Hope & Change message....

    "Put Hillary on the ticket!"


    June 5, 2012 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  11. connieb

    So it looks like we were wrong; we really aren't grown up enough yet to accept a black president.

    June 5, 2012 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  12. Sniffit

    ""Put Hillary on the ticket!""

    Newsflash: Nobody bought the whole PUMA nonsense astroturfed by the GOP back in 2008. They're certainly not going to buy it this year if you try to stir up resentment among Dem voters that Clinton's not running in hopes it gets some of them to stay home.

    June 5, 2012 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  13. jason

    It's not the left but the right that has become hyper partisan. 25 years? I can't think of anytime in modern history that things have been so partisan.

    June 5, 2012 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  14. Bob

    Where have the moderates from each party gone? Why does the far right fringe or far left fringe of each party dominate today's politics. We need comprise on both sides to move this country forward.

    June 5, 2012 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  15. Nuihc

    Awww Sniffit, you have already proven me correct once, you don't have to continue to prove me correct. As far as the rest of what you said, well lets just say that a while back when I was reading these postings, most of the time your posts were intelligent and well thought out, even the ones I did not agree with. But lately???? Well, lets just say your credibility is shot. You are sounding like the proverbial "racist angry black man."

    June 5, 2012 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  16. Sue

    Psssstttt liberals........I am an Independent, not a Republican. I'm sorry that I cannot be a blind, deaf, clueless, and gullible Obama drone like you are......But, I can see/hear the facts and information--and I will no way support the nightmare/failure/incompetent Administration-also known as the Obama Administration.

    June 5, 2012 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  17. Woman In California

    @ Sue

    After the debates START you might want to change your name as Willard won't be UP in anything once the nation takes a REAL close look at this pathological liar.

    June 5, 2012 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  18. Happy_Days_are_here_again

    Color vs Results. Choose right this time.

    June 5, 2012 05:26 pm at 5:26 pm |
  19. Nuihc

    @Tom Paine
    @Tom Paine,,,,what name calling? I called no-one any names.
    Your patronising tone is more than enough to qualify. Your "analysis" has all the credibility of astrology. An economic crash does not occur due to policies enacted over 2-4 years, it occurs due to systemic weaknesses in the economy that take decades to build up.
    You are shooting yourself in the foot. I was not "patronising" anything. I simply stated the facts by time. I happen to agree with you about the actual cause being systemic and taking decades to build up. I just hate reading on here when people pick and choose their facts to support their opinions. I hate the left and Obama blaming just Bush for this mess, when in reality it was both sides that have caused it, yes going back decades. Each administration does what it can to "kick the can" down the road while attempting to make themselves not look bad doing it. The truth is the economy of a nation, any nation, is so complex that the politics of most governments only allows bandaids for the problems that arise.

    June 5, 2012 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  20. Happy_Days_are_here_again

    Hope & Change

    How is that working after 4 years. Kinda like shovel ready jobs.

    Simple saying, hard to make it happen.

    Get it right this time in 2012.

    June 5, 2012 05:30 pm at 5:30 pm |
  21. dallastexas75205

    I hate to say it but it may end in a civil war. The republicans vs. the democrats

    June 5, 2012 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  22. dallastexas75205

    We should have another civil war battle and fight it out, democrats vs. republicans.

    June 5, 2012 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  23. Former Republican for President Obama

    @Max: thank you very much for your response to Sue. Sue can not speak for this white Moderate Independent or anyone else.

    June 5, 2012 05:45 pm at 5:45 pm |
  24. Matt

    These polls don't delve into the issues enough. They ask broad and vague questions like "Is it the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves?" and only 40 percent agree. If they asked the question this way, "Do you think government has the responsibility to take care of people who are frail elderly or severely phsically disabled?" I'm sure the percentage would be much higher in agreement. Its just that Republicans hear "take care of people" and they obviously bunch in all welfare recipients. But the poll is symbolic of politics today. If people looked deeper, there could be agreement among the parties, but everyone wants to be extreme.

    June 5, 2012 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  25. cali girl

    Happy days, the GOP keeps voting NO on those shovel ready jobs, you know, the construction, road improvements and highways stuff.

    June 5, 2012 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
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