Study: Polarization at highest level in 25 years
June 5th, 2012
11:35 AM ET
10 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. Romney is not My Hero

    @ Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer wrote:

    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!

    AMEN! OBAMA 2012!

    June 5, 2012 05:51 pm at 5:51 pm |
  2. SF

    @ Sue

    sue is an OBVIOUS independent...easily fooled and obviously someone with reading problems and a lack of methodically figuring out what's right and what's wrong. If all independents are like Sue, we're in trouble!

    June 5, 2012 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |
  3. Bonnie

    It's not the president. It's the attitude of the people. Racism isn't dead in the heart of many and they can't accept that our country is being run and that [he knows what he is doing] by someone besides a white man. How will the white man react when a woman becomes President? It's not the man running the country, it's the people that can't accept that it's not a white man.s country anymore. And may I say I am so grateful for that, Obama I hope you beat that hair cutting spoiled rich boy in 2012. If a boy cut another boys hair in todays society, he would be under psychiatric care, instead of running for president. Maybe we should go with that idea anyway. Just what kind of man are we deailing with. He changes his politics, he changes stories. Is he a unicorn or a chameleon?

    June 5, 2012 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  4. rob

    @The REAL Truth...
    First, the difference between Romney's health care and the Dems is that under the constitution, States have much broader power then the Federal Govt. to install a huge new Govt controlled plan. Second, The Republicans where never actually invited to draw up any part of the Dems bill. They put it together without the normal legislative process. After nearly a year wasted on the thing, when it was finally passed on a parliamental gimmick almost no-one knew what was in the bill. Nancy Pelosi"s famous line "we will have to pass the bill so you can see whats in it" speaks volumnes about the absolute arrogance they showed to everyone-not just republicans.

    June 5, 2012 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  5. ThinkAgain

    @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."

    That's funny, because every Independent I know thinks Mittens is a joke and that President Obama has done a lot of good with the economy, taking out Osama bin Laden, keeping GM alive, getting us out of Iraq, winding down in Afghanistan, and actually dealing with the challenges facing our nation.

    These same Independents I know recognize that the GOP has done nothing but obstruct President Obama and is gleefully taking huge, unaccountable sums of money from Lord knows where in their efforts to regain power, regardless of the consequences to our nation and her people.

    You're an outlier, Sue, if you are indeed an "Independent," which I highly doubt.

    June 5, 2012 06:57 pm at 6:57 pm |
  6. Sydnium S. Washington

    I'm dizzy with the stats. That, however, will get the election going and cracking.

    June 5, 2012 07:50 pm at 7:50 pm |
  7. WIMPY38

    To Sue: I think you just discribed Mitt Romney! And as the "race" part, we African-Americans wouldn't want him is he was the second coming of Jesus!

    June 5, 2012 08:16 pm at 8:16 pm |
  8. david martin

    Ronald 3eagan was in his day regarded as the Arch-Coservative–Tip O'Neal was regarded as a foaming-at-the-mouth Liberal. They would fight all day, but at night get together in the White House, throw back a few, and tell each other funny stories till the wee small hours. Then the next day they would do it all again! This was right smack dab in the middle of that 25 year period referenced in the story. The difference now is that their is no true mutual respect or friendship across the aisle(except in rare instances). It's not the partisanship that is the problem–it is the vituperation and vindictiveness that makes it impossible to bridge that partisaship that underlies the deadly gridlock that is destroying American Governance.

    June 6, 2012 02:49 am at 2:49 am |
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