Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.
If you thought that political polarization in America was bad, think again. Because it’s worse than you thought. And if you’re under the impression that dysfunctionality in Washington is merely a product of partisan political gamesmanship on Capitol Hill, try again. Because a new survey finds that the divisions inside the Beltway actually reflect a deep ideological divide within the U.S. public that manifests itself not only in politics, but in everyday life. Indeed, this polarization is growing – and it has profound implications for economic and security issues that affect the rest of the world.
Republicans and Democrats in the United States are more divided along ideological lines, and the resulting political acrimony is deeper and more extensive, than at any point in recent U.S. history, according to the Pew Research Center survey. And such partisanship is having a greater impact on policy because these partisans make up a larger share of the politically engaged members of their parties.
The share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions on a range of issues – on the size and scope of government, the environment, foreign policy, among others – has doubled over the past two decades, from 10 percent to 21 percent. And this shift isn’t just about one party – Democrats have been moving to the left and Republicans have moved to the right. As a result, now roughly one-in-five Americans hold either strongly liberal or strongly conservative views. Meanwhile, the percentage of the American public that takes a liberal stance on some issues and a conservative one on others has fallen from half in 1994 to 39 percent today.
This recent polarization has taken on an unprecedented personal element. Sure, Democrats and Republicans haven’t always liked each other. But today the feelings appear far more hostile. For example, 36 percent of Republicans say the Democratic Party is a threat to the well-being of the country, while just over a quarter of Democrats see the GOP as a threat to the nation.
Moreover, many Democrats and Republicans today don’t even want to associate with each other. More than six-in-ten of consistent conservatives and about half of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views. People on the right and the left also say it is important to them to live in a place where most people have similar political sentiments. And three-out-of-ten consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat (compared with almost a quarter of across-the-board liberals who voice the same concern about the prospect of a Republican in-law).
Such partisans are increasingly active in their respective parties. In 1994, just 8 percent of politically-engaged Democrats were consistent liberals. In 2014, these strong liberals made up 38 percent of party activists. Similarly, 20 years ago consistent conservatives accounted for just under a quarter of politically-engaged Republicans. Today they represent one-third.
Needless to say, such partisanship complicates political deal-making. When asked about compromise on the most important issues facing the country, consistent conservatives say that congressional Republicans should get two-thirds of whatever they want and that the White House should get only one-third. Consistent liberals are no more conciliatory: 62 percent say that in any deal between Congressional Republicans and President Obama, the White House should get two-thirds of what it wants, while the GOP should only get one-third.
Such partisanship would be political theater for the rest of the world if it didn’t have such serious policy consequences.
For a start, there’s no doubt that Republicans and Democrats typically take broadly differing stances on major international issues. Among the American public, for example, Democrats are more supportive than Republicans of both a free trade agreement with Europe (60 percent to 44 percent) and a free trade agreement with Japan and other countries around the Pacific (59 percent to 49 percent). Republicans are for their part more sympathetic to Israel than are Democrats, while Democrats are more opposed to the U.S. getting involved in the Ukraine than are Republicans. All this suggests that finding compromise will be almost as tricky on foreign policy as it is on domestic.
True, political differences are a fact of life in any country. But a deepening ideological uniformity and partisan animosity in both politics and everyday life challenges one of the premises of a functioning democracy: the ability to make decisions through compromise. The political partisanship now evident in the United States is not politics as usual. It is something different. And we should all be watching it very closely.