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Stark Report: Left-Right Divide Is At Its Worst In Recent Memory


The sharpening divide between conservatives and liberals in the U.S. is not only affecting politics. More and more, it's dividing Americans in terms of the places they choose to live and the people with whom they spend time. Those are some of the findings of the Pew Research Center in a new survey out today. It's the largest survey of U.S. political attitudes ever undertaken by the Pew Research Center. And bottom line, Pew says, Republicans and Democrats are more divided than at any point in the last two decades. Michael Dimock is the vice president of research for the Pew Research Center. Welcome to the studio.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So this is a pretty stark picture. Although, we should note, first of all, there's a vast middle that is doing OK, right? Like, they're not too fired up but the two ends of the spectrum, it sounds like, are getting further and further apart.

DIMOCK: That's exactly right. You're seeing more and more people today who see the world through consistently liberal or conservative ideological lenses and who see the other side as the enemy, not just somebody they disagree with. But those voices are still the minority in our public. They're just a louder and somewhat larger minority.

CORNISH: All right. So let's talk a little bit more about this minority. Who are you measuring and exactly how divided is the right and left?

DIMOCK: Well, we're talking about the public at large. We're talking about a substantial, but still limited change - the share of Americans who are consistently liberal or conservative in their outlook has doubled over the last 20 years from 10 percent of the public to 20 percent of the public. They now make up a larger share of Democrats and Republicans. So now about a quarter of Democrats are down the line liberal in their thinking across social issues, economic issues, government foreign-policy and a similar share among the Republican Party. But those voices, while still minorities in the parties, are the ones who are taking the most action in making their voices heard.

CORNISH: In looking at these extremes, you talk about this idea of an ideological silo. What does that mean? What does that look like, your average day or week, for somebody who's in one of these silos?

DIMOCK: Yeah. There are a couple terms for that - a silo or what some call an echo chamber - the sense that the environments that we are in, resulting from choices we make in our life, tend to reinforce our views. We found the majority of conservatives telling us that most of their friends share their political point of views. About half of liberals say the same thing. People who are mixed in their ideological views, not only do they not have uniform networks of friends, they don't really even know about what their friends think. They don't talk about politics that much. We found people saying that they prefer to live in communities where most people share their political point of views, particularly on the right of the spectrum. And we find people desiring different things in their communities. At the left, people really like the walkable community. They want to live in a city. They'll make the sacrifice of a smaller house to be able to walk to things in their neighborhood. Most conservatives tell us they really would prefer to live farther from things, even if it meant a drive, if they could have more space and a yard and some distance from their neighbors.

CORNISH: So the partisans are playing to type.

DIMOCK: They are. There's a stereotype out there of the McMansion versus the Brooklyn brownstone. It's grounded in a truth about the priorities people have in their lives.

CORNISH: Now, what are some of the issues - hot-button issues - that as you are asking about them really signal the shift toward ideological consistency?

DIMOCK: There are a couple of areas. One, certainly, are social issues. We've seen the nation as a whole move in a more liberal or progressive direction on a lot of social issues -homosexuality and immigration being two really prominent ones. Part of why liberals are more uniform in their thinking is that old cleavages among Democrats over immigration and gay marriage are pretty much gone. Those are areas of unity now. But the issue of government, the role of government in the economy and the deficit and spending and the social safety net are also areas where views have really crystallized on both sides. You see among Democrats more straight-line thinking in a positive way about the role government can play and on the right, especially within the last 10 years, a lot more conservative thinking across the board.

CORNISH: All right. In looking at these partisans, it seems like you find that there is real animosity, right? And it's not just about the ideas. They see a real threat.

DIMOCK: Yes, that's right. 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans tell us the other side is so misguided that they pose a threat to the well-being of the nation. So it's not just that they disagree. It's that they really see something much more stark in the nature of politics. It's an us versus them environment for a lot of people.

CORNISH: What's the effect on this great middle? Are people essentially sitting out these discussions because of all the animosity?

DIMOCK: You see a lot of signs of that. The folks in the center of the ideological spectrum who have a mix of liberal and conservative views - they largely tell us they don't talk about politics that much. Their turnout rates in elections are far, far lower. They're not going to campaign events. They're not writing letters to their members at nearly the level of the people who see the world in more red and blue terms, so to speak.

CORNISH: Michael Dimock. He is vice president of research for the Pew Research Center. Michael, thanks so much for coming in.

DIMOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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