Pew survey finds sharp erosion of center as partisan animosity has ‘gotten more personal’

Chris Cillizza
Reporter June 15

The more you love politics, the more you hate the other side.

That somewhat depressing — if not terribly surprising — conclusion sits at the heart of a new Pew Research Center study of partisanship and polarization that suggests we are living in a time of unprecedented political divisions, affecting not just how we vote but how we live.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

“Partisan animosity has grown and gotten more personal,” a memo detailing the results says. “Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.’ ”

The numbers — and the Pew survey is stuffed with them — are eye-popping.

Using 10 values questions aimed at judging conservatism or liberalism, Pew found that the middle — made up of people who hold a roughly equal number of conservative and liberal positions — is shrinking. In 1994 and 2004, 49 percent of Americans fit that description; today, just 39 percent do.

As the middle has eroded, the partisan poles have grown. Today, 12 percent of people identify themselves as “consistently liberal” on the values questions (quadruple the number who said the same in 1994), while 9 percent of Republicans are “consistently conservative” (triple the number from a decade ago).

The shrinkage in the center and the growth on the left and the right are even more meaningful than the numbers suggest, because it’s the people at the edges who are most engaged in the political debate.

“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,” according to Pew.

Now, that reality is not all that new. Unaligned voters are usually unaligned for a reason. They tend to take a casual approach to politics — dialing in only when the mood strikes them. And the most partisan people have always been the volunteer army, the donor base and reliable voters for their respective sides.

What’s different now, as documented by the Pew survey, is how little common ground the two bases share, as well as the level of personal vitriol that they bear for each other.

Consider this stunning statistic: In 1994, 23 percent of Republicans in the Pew values continuum were more liberal than the average Democrat, while 17 percent of Democrats were more conservative than the average GOP-er. Today, just 4 percent of Republicans are to the left of the median Democrat, and just 5 percent of Democrats are to the right of the average Republican.

The divide is even more stark when you limit the sample to those who are engaged politically and vote regularly. Among that group, 99 percent of Republicans are further to the right than the average Democrat, and 98 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican. A decade ago, 88 percent of such Republicans were more to the right than the average Democrat, while 84 percent of such Democrats were to the left of the average Republican. (Sidebar: This sort of split also holds true among the people we elect to Congress, with ideological overlap between the two parties heading toward nonexistence over the past decade.)

All of this partisan sorting — coupled with the sort of self-sorting into neighborhoods and communities it has created or aided — has led partisans to increasingly see the other side as an ill-tempered alien: strange, impossible to understand and with malice on its mind.

Fully three in 10 consistent conservatives said they would be unhappy if a family member married a Democrat, while 23 percent of consistent liberals said the same about a potential coupling with a Republican. (Whither Mary Matalin and James Carville!) Eight in 10 consistent liberals said they would prefer living in a community with smaller houses that are closer together, and where they can walk to schools, restaurants and stores. Just one in five consistent conservatives said the same. Two-thirds of consistent conservatives said their closest friends share their ideological beliefs.

Viewed broadly, the results of the Pew survey suggest that the two political parties are increasingly becoming two entirely different nations — and warring nations at that. Politics has become personal, and vice versa. Common ground in either of those spheres looks like a quaint relic of the past.

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