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Pew survey: Partisan polarization in US hits 25-year high

Partisan divisions have become wider since 1987, with most of the shift occurring under the Bush and Obama presidencies, a Pew survey finds. This does not bode well for gridlock in Congress.

Protestors against the Keystone XL pipeline dressed as referees throw red penalty flags during a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, in January. Partisan divisions have grown most noticeably over environmental issues, with Democrats moving to the left and Republicans moving to the right.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Americans have become more politically polarized than at any time in the past 25 years, according to a major survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center.

Pew measured partisan differences on 48 areas that it has tracked since 1987, and the average partisan gap has nearly doubled, from 10 percent to 18 percent. Partisan divisions have grown most noticeably over the role of the social safety net, environmental protection, immigration, and the federal government’s scope and performance, with Democrats moving to the left and Republicans moving to the right.

Nearly all the increases occurred during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“Republicans are most distinguished by their increasingly minimalist views about the role of government and lack of support for environmentalism,” the study’s authors write. “Democrats have become more socially liberal and secular. Republicans and Democrats are most similar in their level of political engagement.”

In practical terms, the study does not bode well for Congress’s ability to address America’s problems.

The Pew authors note that views on the importance of environmental protection have “arguably been the most pointed area of polarization.” Twenty years ago, when questions about the environment were first asked, there was almost no partisan difference in views. And as recently as 2003, Republicans and Democrats came in on average 13 points apart on environmental issues. Now the gap is 39 points.


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