The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Only about 1 in 10 Americans have a lot of friends of the opposing political party

President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting in the Oval Office on Nov. 10, 2016. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
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Here’s what we know about polarization in the United States.

We know that Democrats and Republicans are farther apart on key policy positions than they used to be. New research from Pew Research shows that 97 percent of Democrats are more liberal than the median Republican, and 95 percent of Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat. In 1994, those figures were 70 and 64 percent, respectively.

We know (again from Pew) that more than 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats hold unfavorable views of members of the other party, with 44 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of Republicans holding very unfavorable views of their political opponents.

We know that people tend to self-sort by the sorts of media they consume and how they interact on social media.

We know that in 16 states last year, more than a third of 2016 voters lived in a neighborhood where either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton won by more than 50 percentage points. In four, more than half of voters lived in such polarized areas.

On average, 11 percent of voters in a state lived in a precinct that voted for Clinton by a 50-point margin last year. On average, 15 percent of voters lived in one that backed Trump by that margin.

We also know, again from Pew’s new data, that most Democrats and most Republicans are primarily friends with members of their own party.

Two-thirds of Democrats (and independents who lean Democratic) say that “a lot” of their friends are also Democrats; another 18 percent say that “some” are. Among Republicans (and independents who lean Republican), 57 percent say that they have a lot of Republican friends. Another fifth say that they have some Republican friends. More than half of Republicans and Democrats also say that they have only a few or no friends from the opposite party. That includes 14 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Democrats who report having no friends who vote with the other party.

It’s hard not to see a through-line to all of this. People socialize with people who generally share their politics. They often live in neighborhoods where their neighbors voted the same way as them. They often consume media that is specific to their party. Their support for partisan views has increased, as has their antipathy to the opposing political party.

That’s one framing.

Another framing is to consider that 30 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans report having “a lot” or “some” friends of the opposite party. A third from each party reports having some or a lot of independent friends, too. More than half of Democrats and Republicans don’t view members of the opposing party very unfavorably. Most voters live in neighborhoods where the 2016 vote was a bit more even. On average, a fifth of voters in each state lived in a neighborhood where Trump or Clinton won by no more than 10 percentage points.

The Pew report shows that partisanship is still increasing. It’s clear that homogeneity of relationships, neighborhoods, media and online communities probably plays some role in that. But it’s worth remembering, too, that it’s not uniform. We focus on the partisanship because it’s new and worsening. But it’s not something that everyone experiences.

Eighty percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Democrats have at least one friend who’s a member of the other party. That’s not great — but it’s not nothing.