Friday, November 24, 2017

The Growth of Political Polarization in America - No, It's Not Your Imagination

Updated March 2018

The 2016 election and its aftermath have shown us how politically polarized the United States has become.  Is it just our imagination or are the political right and left further apart than they were in the past?  A recent analysis by Pew shows us graphically how political leanings in the United States have changed over the period from 1994 during the Clinton Administration to the present.

The Pew Research Center surveyed more than 5000 adults, looking at the gaps on several sets of key political values including the social safety net, race and immigration.  Let's look more closely at four of the key issues:

1.) Social Safety Net - since 1994, the percentage of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters who feel that the government should do more to help needy Americans even if it means that the government has to go further into debt has risen from 58 percent to its current level of 71 percent after falling to a low of 54 percent in 2011.  Over the same timeframe, the percentage of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters who believe the same thing regarding America's social safety net has fallen from 38 percent in 1994 to only 24 percent in 2017.  This results in a difference of 47 percentage points between the two groups in 2017, up from only 20 percentage points in 1994.

2.) Racial Discrimination: since 1994, the percentage of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters who feel that racial discrimination ins the main reason why many African-Americans cannot get ahead has risen from 39 percent to its current level of 64 percent after falling to a low of 38 percent in 2010.  Over the same timeframe, the percentage of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters who believe the same thing regarding racial discrimination has fallen from 36 percent to its current level of 14 percent after falling to a low of 9 percent in 2010.  This results in a difference of 50 percentage points between the two groups in 2017, up from only 13 percentage points in 1994.

3.) Immigration:  since 1994, the percentage of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters who feel that immigrants strengthen America because of their hard work and talents has risen from 32 percent to its current level of 84 percent.  Over the same timeframe, the percentage of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters who believe the same thing as also risen, but at a much lower rate, from 30 to 42 percent.  This results in a difference of 42 percentage points between the two groups in 2017, up from only 2 percentage points in 1994.

4.) Acceptance of Homosexuality:  since 1994, the percentage of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters who accept homosexuality has risen from 54 percent to its current level of 83 percent.  Over the same timeframe, the percentage of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters who accept homosexuality has risen, but at a much lower rate, from 38 percent to 54 percent.  This results in a difference of 29 percentage points between the two groups in 2017, up from 16 percent in 1994.

When looking at all ten measures that the Pew Research Center uses to track the gap in political partisanship, the average partisan gap for these issues has risen from 15 percentage points in 1994 to 36 percentage points in 2017.

Let's look at a graphical representation of the growing political partisanship in America over the two and a half decades prior to 2017 as supplied by Pew.  Here is a graphic showing the responses of the median Democrat and median Republican voters along with the spectrum in between for 1994:


Here is the same graphical representation showing the growing split between the two political opponents in 2011:


Here is the same graphical representation showing an even greater split between the two political opponents in 2015:


Lastly, here is the same graphical representation showing how the United States is experiencing its greatest political divide in the past two and a half decades:


Rather than looking at America as a whole, here is the same graphical representation showing the split between the left and the right for politically engaged Americans:


It's quite clear that what we sense from the mainstream and other media about the growth in political polarization is not a figment of our collective imaginations.  I would suspect that, in our lifetimes, the United States has rarely been more divided on key issues that will drive the America of the future.  Unless the unforeseen happens, the fractious Clinton vs. Trump election of 2016 would appear to be the "new normal" when it comes to American political theatre. 


9 comments:

  1. Is there a set of charts like this for Canada? Based on limited observation of comments on article in Macleans, Globe and Mail, National Inquirer, I would say the polarization in Canada is certainly growing.

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    1. Not that I have been able to find however, I do agree with your observation.

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  2. "Over the same timeframe, the percentage of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters who believe the same thing regarding America's social safety net has fallen from 38 percent in 1994 to only 24 percent in 2017."

    I find it amusing that the consistently red states who are generally less wealthy than blue states are opposed to a "social safety net."

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    1. Yes, they have the decency and self-respect to not grovel for handouts.

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  3. The citizens of red states are the first ones in line for a handout. They pay way less to the federal government than they take from the federal government. It's basic logic.

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  4. Corporate headquarters and pensions and financial plans are all in blue states. What's left of manufacturing and production is mostly in red states. So the red states do all the work yet the blue states get all the money. Of course the blue states (Coastal Elites) think this is fine; the rest of the country, not so much.

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    1. Nah, red states are just lazy and whiny. Blue States are the only ones working hard.

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  5. This isn't news. Nor, frankly, is it helpful. You want a newsworthy piece that helps change the discussion? Figure out WHY the division is growing. It is undoubtedly not any one thing, but define in objective and obvious terms the top few that have led us here and maybe then healing can begin.

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  6. Yes, the divide is larger now than it was 20 years ago. But look at those figures again. Look just at the drift in median values among Democrats over time and the drift in median values among Republicans. (Note that the final graph which shows "engaged" individuals is not comparable to any other graphs, so is of really no value when looking at change over time.)

    From 1994 to 2011, there was virtually NO CHANGE in median Republican position. There was a little change in Republican position (moving just slightly further to the right) by 2015, and then virtually no change from 2015 to 2017.

    But now look at the median among Democrats. In 1994, they were ever so slightly to the right of middle on the figure. (Republicans were, of course, further to the right.) In 2011, Democrats were about as far to the left as Republicans were to the right of center. In 2015, Dems had moved even further to the left and were further to the left of center than Republicans were to the right of center. In 2017, Dems were WAY to the left of center even as Republican's had barely moved. Thus, we see that change in position by Democrats is really driving the political divide.

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