When people complain about the polarization of politics it’s not uncommon to hear someone say that American politics has always been polarized.
“Hey, remember when Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel?” they’ll say.
Well, yes, many Americans do. It was 1804 and at the time “a man’s political opinions were inseparable from one’s self,” according to the book “Gentlemen’s Blood: A History of Dueling.”
Is American politics heading back to 1804? Unclear, but there’s growing evidence that American politics is more polarized now than in recent history. Thanks to a new, massive report by the Pew Research Center, there’s fresh, detailed evidence.
Not only is the divergence between Republicans and Democrats greater now than the last 20 years, the middle is shrinking, too (See the chart at the top of the post).
The split isn’t just a Beltway phenomenon, either.
The American public is more divided on major issues. Those who have mixed feelings, or a willingness to compromise, are less politically active and aware. That’s most Americans, according to Pew:
“Many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.”
And the number of politically engaged and aware people is increasing. According to Pew’s survey of 10,013 U.S. citizens, one-fifth of Americans have consistently liberal or conservative positions. That’s double the amount from 20 years ago.
“Across the 10 ideological values questions in the scale, 39% of Americans currently take a roughly equal number of liberal and conservative positions. That is down from nearly half (49%) of the public in surveys conducted in 1994 and 2004. As noted, the proportion of Americans who are now more uniformly ideological has doubled over the last decade: About one-in-five Americans (21%) are now either consistently liberal (12%) or consistently conservative (9%) in their political values, up from just one-in-ten in 2004 (11%) and 1994 (10%).”
Here it is animated (toggle between “politically active” and “general population”):
Politics is also getting more personal, according to Pew. The study found a sharp spike in antipathy for liberals’ views of conservatives and vice versa.
“In 1994, when the GOP captured the House and Senate after a bitter midterm campaign, about two-thirds (68%) of Republicans and Republican leaners had an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party, but just 17% had a very unfavorable opinion. At the same time, though a majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners (57%) viewed the GOP unfavorably, just 16% had a very unfavorable view. Today, negative ratings have risen overall (about eight-in-ten of both Republicans and Democrats rate the other party unfavorably), but deeply negative views have more than doubled: 38% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans now view the opposite party in strongly negative terms.”
The study described the divide “a deep-seated dislike, bordering on sense of alarm.
Again, another graphic showing how hardened Republicans and Democrats view each other as threats to the country.
So why the divide? Pew provides a few clues, some of which imply that partisans continue to seek refuge in their respective echo chambers.
“Nearly two-thirds (63%) of consistent conservatives and about half (49%) of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views. Among those with mixed ideological values, just 25% say the same. People on the right and left also are more likely to say it is important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views, though again, that desire is more widespread on the right (50%) than on the left (35%).”