The sensible majority is shrinking. According to an important new study by the Pew Research Center, a "growing minority" of partisan Americans doesn't believe in compromise, and suspects the opposing party is a threat to the nation's well-being.
The findings beg the chicken-or-the-egg question. Is an increasingly polarized electorate driving political leaders to the extremes? Or is poor leadership and hyperbolic rhetoric driving voters to ideological corners? The answer is most likely "both," with a wide variety of complicating factors—specifically, the social anxiety that accompanies eras of economic and technological disruption. Key findings:
Hard-core partisans are on the rise. The percentage of Americans who express consistently conservative and consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, from 10 percent to 21 percent. Almost four-in-10 politically engaged Democrats are consistent liberals, up from just 8 percent in 1994. A third of Republicans are consistently conservative, up from just 10 percent a decade ago.
They're also pulling apart. Ideological overlap between the two parties has shrunk. Ninety-two percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican. Two decades ago, just 64 percent of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat and only 70 percent of Democrats were to the left of the median Republican.
And they hate each other. The percentage of Republicans who hold a highly negative view of Democrats is 43 percent, up from 17 percent in 1994. Nearly four-in-10 Democrats loathe Republicans, up from 16 percent two decades ago.
Many consider the other side to be an existential threat. More than one-third of Republicans see the Democratic Party as a threat to the nation's well-being, while 27 percent of Democrats think the same of the GOP.
They run in packs. People with hard-line ideological positions are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their view. Pew says partisans are essentially living in "ideological silos."
And they don't compromise. A majority of consistent conservatives (57 percent) say the ideal agreement between Obama and GOP lawmakers is one in which Republicans hold out for more of their goals. Consistent liberals are just as stubborn, if not more so: Their preferred terms (favored by 62 percent) end up closer to Obama's position than the GOP. "At a time of increasing gridlock on Capitol Hill, many on both the left and the right think the outcome of political negotiations between (President) Obama and Republican leaders should be that their side gets more of what it wants," reads the report.
They're crowding out the rest of us. The hardened partisan views don't reflect the majority of Americans, according to Pew.
These sentiments are not shared by all—or even most—Americans. The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.
Yet many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.
And the middle is shrinking. Rating political values on a scale of 1 to 10, Pew found that since 1994 the number of people in the center has shrunk from 49 percent of the public (in 1994 and 2004) to just 39 percent today. That number includes roughly equal numbers of liberal and conservative positions.