How Growing Partisanship Is Splitting the U.S. in Two
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The Fiscal Times
June 12, 2014

President Obama vowed to “turn the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington” during the 2008 campaign, but for the most part found it impossible to do – and is now trying to work around Congress and entrenched partisan gridlock by imposing policies through executive orders.

 According to a revealing new study, the political deadlock is not just about Washington: It reflects the sharpest ideological divide within the American public perhaps at any time in recent history. Democrats and Republicans are more deeply divided along ideological lines – and partisan rage and antipathy runs much higher than at any time in the past two decades, the report by the Pew Research Center concludes.

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While these trends have been manifest in national politics for years, they’ve also had a profound impact on everyday Americans. People with strong ideological views in both parties tend to socialize and befriend others who share their views – to the exclusion of anyone else. They often make decisions on where to live based on those ideological considerations, while hardliners on both sides routinely impugn the motives of those who disagree with them.

“The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10 percent to 21 percent,” the study said. “And ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past. As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished.”

Alan Murray, president of the Pew Research Center, said today that the new poll shows that those on the ideological fringes of the left and right “are having an outsized” political impact, Politico reported.

“They do the voting in primaries, they do the contributions to campaigns, they’re the ones that contact members of Congress,” Murray said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

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Murray added that while many Americans “in the middle of the ideological spectrum want compromise” by the two parties in Washington, those in the middle tend to be “less active and influential” than the highly motivated ideologues on the far right and far left.

The evidence is compelling, according to the exhaustive study, based on nationwide interviews with 10,000 adults between Jan. 23 and March 16.

Today, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat on core issues and beliefs, while 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.

By contrast, 20 years ago, 64 percent of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat on a set of political values, while 70 percent of Democrats found themselves to the left of the median Republican.

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This profound shift reflects movement on both sides of the political divide, with more Republicans shifting farther to the right and more Democrats embracing far more liberal views. At the same time, partisan animosity has mushroomed to the point where partisans genuinely believe the opposing party’s policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being,” the report states.

The study was issued the same week that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) was toppled by Tea Party challenger David Brat in a GOP House primary race. Cantor’s loss was due partly to the fact that he lost touch with his congressional district near Richmond, but also that many rank-and-file Republicans no longer found him conservative enough.

The evolution in political thinking by Americans is apparent in a number of ways both big and small. The report noted that “ideological silos” are now commonplace on both the left and the right.

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Intransigence by the two parties in Congress over a wide range of issues reflects the unbending views of many constituents, the report says. Many conservatives and liberals surveyed believe the outcome of political negotiations between Obama and Republican leaders should be that their party gains the upper hand.

To be sure, those sentiments are not universally shared by Americans. The study found that the majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. “Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation,” the report says. “More believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.”

Yet many of the more level-headed Americans tend to be disengaged, operating on “the edges of the political playing field,” according to the study. By contrast, the most ideologically driven and politically combative Americans are far more engaged in the political process as they strive to have their voices heard.

Not surprisingly, the report also says that “the rise of ideological uniformity has been much more pronounced among” political activists on the left and right. “Today, almost four-in-ten (38 percent) politically engaged Democrats are consistent liberals, up from just eight percent in 1994…” Meanwhile, 33 percent of consistent conservatives almost always voice conservative opinions, “up from 23 percent in the midst of the 1994 ‘Republican Revolution,’” said Pew.  

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.