The word on the street is that U.S. politics are more polarized today than they have been since 1879, just after the U.S. Civil War. The good news is that this is half wrong. The data tells us that when it comes to such things as strength of party affiliation and political ideology (Liberal versus Conservative), we have actually been holding steady for several decades.[i]  Similarly, on many of our more potentially divisive political issues (immigration, environmental regulations, and so on), opinions are still mostly normally distributed in the U.S., meaning that most of us hold more middle-of-the-road positions.

Nevertheless, by some measures we are clearly more polarized. Congressional voting patterns are more divided than ever, with our political leaders rarely daring to cross the aisle and support bills proposed by the other side.[ii] This is almost a four-decade trend driven by a combination of things like gerrymandering, primarying, and a politicized media.

Similarly, our citizens are showing two concerning patterns. First, their attitudes across distinct political issues are today more aligned within their camps. This means that instead of voters holding independent views on wildly different issues (for instance, on government regulation of businesses versus helping the poor), their views across issues cluster and move in the same direction – in line with how their “team” views them. This is particularly so with our more engaged voters.

Second, our citizens report feeling much more contempt for the other side than in years past. These sentiments have been tracked around presidential elections since 1948, but today we see both Republicans and Democrats reporting that the other side is significantly less intelligent and more selfish than their own, and saying that they would be considerably more displeased if someone from their family married someone from the other camp.

Political scientist Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University sums it up, “Americans may or may not be further apart on the issues than they used to be. But clearly what divides them politically is increasingly personal, and this in many ways may be worse. We don’t just disagree politely about what is the best way to reform the health care system. We believe that those on the other side are trying to destroy America, and that we should spare nothing in trying to stop them.”

Continued in Part 2 of 3...

 

Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.