WASHINGTON – American politics has long been defined as Red vs. Blue, and everything about the 2012 election speaks to the chasm that separates the two parties.
But a major new study highlights how those divisions are only a part of the dynamic shaping the political landscape.
The study, conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, underscores that the gulf between Republicans and Democrats has never been wider. Partisan polarization now presents a potentially insurmountable barrier to governing for whomever wins the White House in November.
Partisan polarization once was considered an affliction only of elected officials and political elites. Now it has gone mainstream. Citizens ties to their political parties are stronger than ever.
Fourteen years ago, the Post, along with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, asked people to assess the strength of their allegiance to the parties. At that time, 41 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats said they considered themselves strong partisans. In the new Post-Kaiser survey, involving 3,000 randomly selected adults, those numbers have shot up to 65 and 62 percent, respectively.
One set of answers is particularly revealing: The number of Republicans who feel strongly that the government controls too much of daily life jumped 24 percentage points since the 1998 survey, to 63 percent. The number of Democrats strongly disagreeing with the assertion doubled.
The debates during Barack Obamas presidency over health care, economic stimulus and financial regulatory reform underscore how far apart the parties stand on economic issues and on attitudes about governments role. For example, more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans say regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest. Most Republicans say regulation does more harm than good.
The two parties are miles apart on whether it is better to have smaller government with fewer services or bigger government with more services. Republicans overwhelmingly say people should take care of themselves; Democrats overwhelmingly say government should do everything possible to improve living standards.
Republicans see deficit reduction as more important than spending money in an effort to create jobs. Democrats believe the opposite.
Divisions over religious and social issues are equally stark.
Both parties contain deeply observant people as well as many who seldom go to church or synagogue or mosque. But in general, a higher percentage of Republicans, by far, are frequent churchgoers. One of the fastest-growing segments of the Democratic Party in recent years has been non-believers or infrequent churchgoers.
Big majorities in both parties see tolerance of others lifestyles as important, but Republicans and Democrats take opposite positions on whether changing mores should affect personal convictions. A majority of Democrats agree with the proposition that as the world changes, people should adjust their morals and values. An even bigger majority of Republicans disagree with that statement, with most saying so strongly. Far more Republicans than Democrats say Americans in general are too tolerant of behavior that once was considered wrong or immoral.
On abortion and gay marriage, the divide between the parties is wide. Twice as many Democrats as Republicans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The margin between the parties is similarly gaping when it comes to same-sex marriage.
Recent shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin have sparked renewed discussion about gun laws. Over the past two decades, overall support for new restrictions has declined, to the point that today barely more than half of those surveyed favored stricter laws. Republicans overwhelmingly oppose tougher restrictions. Democrats overwhelmingly favor tougher laws, but the president and other party leaders are reluctant to propose them.
Areas of consensus
On some issues, the Post-Kaiser study shows that rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats are less divided.
Almost half of Republicans and three-quarters of Democrats say they favor a policy that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for legal status.
And six in 10 Republicans, along with almost nine in 10 Democrats, say the government should regulate the release of greenhouse gases from power plants, cars and factories to reduce global warming.
There is also consensus on two international issues. Few in each party say the United States should play the leading role in the world. More say this country should play a major but not leading role, and around a quarter in each party would prefer the United States to play a minor role. This is an example of an area where GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who prefaced his overseas trip with a speech in which he said it is essential for the United States to play the lead role, is out of step with rank-and-file Republicans.
On the trade-off between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties, big majorities in both parties say the government is doing enough to protect the liberties of individual citizens.
Five years ago, the country was evenly divided on that question, with Democrats far more worried about civil liberties.
Another key area where Republicans and Democrats see the world the same way, although from totally different perspectives, is a shared sense of being at risk of losing what they have. Almost identical percentages – around six in 10 in each party – say groups and people who hold values similar to theirs are losing influence in American life.