The Divided States of America

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by Alan Murray,

from Wall Street Journal,

The percentage of voters who adhere consistently to liberal or conservative views has doubled since 1994.

Political polarization has brought Washington to a standstill, but the degree of polarization of the American public remains a subject of debate. Does dysfunction in D.C. reflect a similar split among the people? Or has the vast center somehow lost its political voice?

That’s the question the Pew Research Center set out to examine this year, starting with its largest political survey ever—a representative sample of more than 10,000 Americans answering a broad range of questions about their political attitudes and values. The first round of results is being released Thursday.

The study should put to rest any notion that polarization is solely a Washington phenomenon. Our research, which relies on a set of questions we’ve been asking for two decades, finds that the percentage of American voters who adhere consistently to liberal or conservative views has doubled since 1994, to 21% from 10%.

Partisan acrimony has risen sharply as well. Its not just Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell who can’t get along. More than twice as many Republicans and Democrats express a “very unfavorable” opinion of the other party as did two decades ago—when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were doing battle. Most of those strong partisans now argue the other side poses a “threat to the nation’s well being.” And negative views of the opposing party appear to be a more salient political force than positive views of one’s own.

The study also undermines the notion, popular in Washington, of “asymmetrical polarization”—which blames Republicans for causing the division. Using a 10-question index of ideological views, our research shows that liberal thinking has coalesced at least as much as conservative thinking over the past two decades. Broad shifts in opinion on homosexuality and immigration, which used to divide the Democratic base, have helped cause the share of Democrats who hold consistently liberal views to more than quadruple, to 23% from 5%. The share of Republicans with consistently conservative views has increased less dramatically over the same time period, falling from 13% in 1994 to 6% in 2004, before spiking to 20% this year.

Those in the ideological wings remain a minority. But they are a growing minority, and more than in recent history they are driving American politics. They are much more likely to vote, make campaign contributions, contact members of Congress or work on campaigns. As a result, 38% of politically engaged Democrats are now hold consistently liberal views—up from just 8% in 1994. And 33% of politically engaged Republicans are consistent conservatives—up from 23% in 1994 and 10% in 2004.

The political and the personal have become intertwined as well. Those on the left and the right don’t just vote differently; they live differently. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of consistent conservatives and about half (49%) of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views. Thirty percent of consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat, while 23% of consistent liberals say the same. Far more liberals than conservatives think it is important for a community to have racial and ethnic diversity (76% vs. 20%), while far more conservatives than liberals attach importance to living in a place where people share their religious faith (57% vs. 17%).

What has caused this political fracturing of the American public? Theories abound: A more openly partisan media, an explosion of negative political messaging, technology that allows people to readily connect with the like-minded, gerrymandering of congressional districts, closed political primaries and even higher levels of education are cited as changes behind the trends.

Roughly half of all Americans, when asked how they want President Obama and Republican leaders to resolve their differences on important issues, say they should split the difference—a “50-50” compromise.

Those voices are increasingly lost in the din. The majority of Americans may not be getting the politics they want. But growing minorities have taken clear sides in the political battle, see high stakes in the outcome and are filled with passionate intensity.

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