Study: Politically Engaged Liberals and Conservatives Don’t Want to Be Neighbors

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Congress hasn’t been this polarized in decades — since scholars developed objective methods of measuring lawmakers’ voting records. Twenty years ago, there was a significant number of Democrats who were more conservative than the most liberal Republican in Congress, and vice versa. Now there’s no ideological overlap between the two parties.

Political journalists often blame this sorry state of affairs on congressional “dysfunction” (while too often failing to note that Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats have shifted to the left.)

But a new study by the Pew Research Center suggests that ordinary voters are almost as sharply divided as the lawmakers who represent them. The authors write, “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life.”

That conclusion is based on “the largest study of US political attitudes ever undertaken by the Pew Research Center” — from January through March they interviewed more than 10,000 people.

This animated graphic, based on Pew surveys,  shows that since 1994, voters — especially the most politically engaged — have moved away from the center.

According to the report, since 1994, the share of the electorate whose opinions are either consistently liberal or consistently conservative has doubled.

Partisan rancor has also increased — Democrats and Republicans really don’t like one another. But here we see differences between the parties — there are significantly more Republicans  who think that Democrats are “a threat to the nation’s wellbeing” (36 percent) than there are Democrats who believe the same of Republicans (27 percent).

But there’s also a caveat here: When George W. Bush was in office, more Democrats than Republicans held a “very unfavorable view” of the other party, but that trend has reversed under Obama. So these views may be affected by which party controls the White House. Indeed, Pew finds that approval of presidents “in the opposing party have become steadily more negative” from the 1950s — when almost half of Democratic voters had a positive view of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In any event, the study finds a strong link between ideology and antipathy toward the other party — being further out on the ideological spectrum is a pretty good predictor of how much distaste for the other party you’ll have.

Another area where the parties differ is in “political siloing” — the tendency to interact mostly with like-minded people. Significantly more “consistently conservative” voters (50 percent) say that it’s “important to live in a place where most people share my political views” than consistently liberal voters (35 percent). Similarly, 63 percent of staunch conservatives say most of their friends share their worldview, while 49 percent of liberals say the same.

That finding, according to Pew, is consistent with our increasing geographic separation, with conservatives drawn to suburban and exurban communities and liberals preferring densely populated cities.

As far as political gridlock goes, perhaps the most salient finding is that while those who aren’t highly engaged say politicians should meet in the middle on various issues, those who are more politically engaged — more likely to give candidates money, volunteer their time and vote in primaries — say they want lawmakers to “stick to their principles.”

Carroll Doherty, Pew’s director of political research, says that future studies will investigate possible causes for the widening divide among American voters — and which came first, hyper-polarized politicians or their constituents.

The Pew data is consistent with the conclusions of other studies. An in-depth report for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found that city to be ideologically and geographically polarized — with both sides moving further apart in every election cycle. The University of Chicago’s Boris Shor and Princeton’s Nolan McCarty found that many state legislatures are now even more polarized than the US Congress — and that those divides also are growing wider. (The Sunlight Foundation has an interesting visualization of ideological polarization in state legislatures.)

Whatever the causes of this increasing political enmity between the parties, it’s making the country ungovernable. You can see that in Washington’s inability to address the foreclosure crisis or persistently high unemployment.

But it is good for one group of Americans. A study published last November in The Journal of Politics found that political gridlock correlates with the top 1 percent of households gaining a larger share of the nation’s income ( spoke with one of the researchers about that finding in January). When politicians are at each other’s throats, it mostly hurts the middle class and the poor.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Anonymous

    Interesting data. But it is not “disturbing”, it is actually encouraging.

    Why have two political parties if they are both the same? Might as well have a single party system like China. Stronger positions by parties and voters, give people clear choices.

    If you want a highly regulated economy and want to take more from the “rich” to give to others, vote Democrat and move to California and NYC.

    If you want to leave people a bit more alone in their affairs and let them keep a bit more of their money, vote Republican and move to Texas or Utah.

    Simple, clear choices.

    As to making the country ungovernable, that is an absurd notion. We have a RECORD high number of states under single party control – both houses of the legislature and governorship under the same party. The states are pretty governable.

    If you mean the Federal government, well, its main functions in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, provide for common defense, domestic tranquility are working just fine and there is very little debate over it between the two parties.

    The only division at the Federal level is to what extent the Federal government vs the states should get involved in regulating every facet of our lives. And that is a battle that should be fought vigorously, not lightly. It is a proper difference of opinion, and the voters and the parties should duke it out.

  • Trumbull Desi

    “If you want to leave people a bit more alone in their affairs and let them keep a bit more of their money, vote Republican and move to Texas or Utah.”

    Only a Republican would think that Republicans leave us alone in our affairs. My uterus, my lebsian friend’s marriage, and my schoolhouse say otherwise.

  • Anonymous

    It should be asserted that the polarization of politics started because of the previously existing same condition in the country at large, not the other way around. Politicians are no more or less than a full or partial reflection of the people who put them in office. From a “wider magnification” than is usually discussed in op-ed columns, one could also assert that society’s inability to compromise among ourselves is the result of a false assumption that a zero sum game strategy is appropriate more often than not in today’s mainstream culture. Before our modern world gets too complicated, it is imperative we find politicians on both sides of the political aisle that make compromise a priority.

  • Anonymous

    “If you mean the Federal government, well, its main functions in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, provide for common defense, domestic tranquility”

    Your copy of the Constitution must be missing the two references to promoting the general welfare. You should get a complete one — with the preamble and the Taxing and Spending Clause.

  • y.slobodinskaya

    Is this another false equivalency slipping under the journalistic radar?

    Liberals want to move to where there’s diversity. Conservatives want to get away from it. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say the right is self-segregating, than both sides wanting to move away from each other?

  • Anonymous

    The Main Stream Media is responsible for sowing the seeds of discord.
    Infotainment, falsification of news and creating sensationalism by
    pitting nonsense views against each other is the new normal. They began
    by just testing the waters in their frantic chase for ratings and
    profits, but culminated when Fox News took it to court to appeal a
    verdict against them (for falsification of news) and won the right to to
    intentionally falsify news reporting, in New World Communications (aka
    Fox News) of Tampa, Inc., vs Jane Akre, Case No. 2D01-529. The very
    idea that the the MSM, using public airways, are legally permitted to
    bear false witness, intentionally falsify the news and steal the truth
    from us must not be allowed to stand. The FCC is a disgrace in
    protecting us from this abuse. If a population cannot rely on truthfulness in our own news, our
    democracy cannot survive.

  • Anonymous

    We need a way of governing by the people rather than electing people based on what they promise while campaigning, then do whatever puts more money in their pockets. There should be a national vote on hot issues. Abortion or not… go to the voting booth. Reduce spending by a trillion or 10 trillion… go to the voting booth. End coal subsidies… go to the voting booth. End climate change… go to the voting booth. Award eagle scout to John’s kid… let congress debate that one…. John’s kid might get his rank by the time he graduates college.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, we are both saying the same thing. The main area of debate is simply the role of the Federal government vs the states in “promoting the general welfare”.

    Option 1 – Feds set general rules in true interstate and international issues (trade, transportation, etc), leaves rest to the states.

    Option 1 – Feds get involved in everything, usurping the states.

    As I said before, the states are self sorting. NY passed gun control in the middle of the night, Indiana went right to work, California raised taxes, Washington raised the minimum wage, etc, with little drama.

    Similarly, the DoD continues to receive proper funding with little drama from both Democrats and Republicans.

    All the fight, is about the Federal government role in regulating simple, local activities. And it should be a big fight. It should not surprise anyone, when a central entity wants to regulate the entire economy in a country of 315,000,000 people, 50 autonomous states, and very diverse culture and priorities.

    Look at Europe. There is a huge fight, rebellion by right wing even, about the very, very, very limited role of the EU central government. The right wing, nationalistic party seat wins in the EU parliament is the same phenomenon as the Tea Party/right wing republicans revolting against the role of the US Federal government.

    It is a human reaction against power from afar. Happened against the Roman empire, against the expanded LBJ Federal Government, and will happen against an expanded EU central government. It is a simple, predictable phenomenon, that you find disturbing.

  • Anonymous

    As I understand it…

    Republicans leave your uterus completely alone, but claim a state interest in protecting a human life that may occasionally me inside it, by regulating under what circumstances it can be terminated – seems like a narrow interest, in a narrow moment in time.

    Similarly, they leave your lesbian friend completely alone, but when your lesbian friend asks the government to sanction her relationship, said Republicans claim a right to refuse.

    But, again, you miss the point. Go to Massachusetts or NY and abort your fetus more readily or attend a lesbian wedding more freely. There are choices.

    But a Federal government wanting to impose a single rule to cover abortion and gay marriage that applies equally to Massachusetts and Alabama is pure insanity.

    If you want to know about my position on the issues you mentioned…

    1 – The government has no business sanctioning or not a relationship between two adults – gay or straight. Getting a state license to “marry” is the most ridiculous thing. You literally gay or straight need to apply to the state for the right to marry. Crazy!!! The state has an interest in insuring the welfare of children – but with 50% of children being born/raised outside of marriage, the two are not the same. End ALL marriage regulations everywhere is my position. Want a blessing for a relationship? Got to a religious institution or private entity. Write a contract for property and be done.

    2 – On abortion. Fetus is neither a human life, nor a simple collection of cells. It is a “potential” human life, that gets progressive more human as pregnancy progresses. First 1/3 of pregnancy, woman decides what to do, and all decisions are fully covered by medic an insurance. Last 1/3 of pregnancy woman has to petition a court for the right to terminate, if granted full insurance coverage, with court balancing interests of the woman and the fetus. Middle trimester if a doctor certifies that the fetus is non viable and/or has serious potential deformities, woman can do what she wants, covered by insurance, else, petitions a court just like last trimester.



  • Trumbull Desi

    I’m not sure how equal rights are insanity, but you’re certainly entitled to your point of view.

  • Anonymous

    Because you are asking the state to regulate a relationship between two consenting adults. If a men and a woman move in together and have kids, they can do it. But if they want to go to their church and “get married”, they need to go to city hall and apply for a license, submit to blood tests, list all previous marriages, etc. Why? The state makes it illegal for a priest or rabbi or whatever to “marry” you, without a state license.

    You don’t find that intrusive in adult to adult relationships?

  • John Sage

    The simple fact is that conservatives, using the twin vehicles of the Republican Party and FOX “News”, have done more profound damage to the social, political and financial fabric of the United States of America than any of their much-shouted about “Foreign Enemies” of the 1950’s.

    Do I like any of them? Hell no. They’re amoral, duplicitous, disingenuous, unrepentant serial liars.

    Beyond that, I am sincerely afraid that one of them, someday, will shoot and kill me with one of their precious guns.

    So what’s the hell to like?

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  • Joshua LeTrole

    I’d like to know where those of us who hate both the democrats and the republicans fit? Most of my friends can’t stand either party. My friends range from Greens to Libertarian, from Socialist to Tea Party, but none of us find the Republicans or Democrats anything more than servants to Wall Street bankers, polluters, and poisoners.

  • Joshua LeTrole

    Sounds like a perfect description of Obama: amoral, duplicitous, disingenuous, unrepentant, serial liar.”

  • Anonymous

    You meant to include Bush in that remark as well I’ll assume.

  • Anonymous

    As a Democrat I have become more and more disgusted with republicans especially during the Bush administration when they would spend and spend and make war and go for deregulation and harm this country and people so much. Then when President Obama was elected they would not cooperate for the good of the country at all. In the past I voted for both Democrats and republicans, but no more. I am in a red state where I will vote for only Democrats. The republican party is not for the middle class or anyone other than the one percent and the worst republican people who are misinformed and want to be or just love the liars.

  • Anonymous

    The GOP are the polluters and the poisoners. Both parties are for the banks.

  • Anonymous

    If you had any sense you would find it disturbing as well.

  • Anonymous

    “Please won’t you be my neighbor.” — Fred Rogers

  • Anonymous

    Look into the Progressives. Russ Feingold is today’s best example.

  • Anonymous

    How about a list of examples. Big claims require big evidence. Let’s see it.