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Our Polarized Populace

More Americans are self-identifying as extremists. But polarization may be the result of focusing on a handful of divisive issues.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

News flash: New research finds Americans are more politically polarized than ever. And more of us call ourselves Independents, even though we vote in predictably partisan ways.

OK, neither of those findings qualifies as novel. But delve deeper into a just-published study that examines trends in political identification since 1970, and what emerges is a destructive disconnect.

A research team led by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge reports that, while we increasingly identify ourselves as strong partisans, “Democrats and Republicans are not moving further apart on particular issues, and in many instances, they actually have great overlap and many shared views.”

She and her colleagues report that, over time, more Americans are “identifying as very or extremely liberal or conservative.” Yet this self-labeling appears to be largely based on “a select few polarized issues,” masking smaller differences — or even a rough consensus — on many others.

“The growing polarization of the American public may in turn also drive political elite polarization to even greater heights, further inhibiting efficient governance,” they warn in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Twenge and her colleagues examined data from three large, nationally representative surveys: Monitoring the Future, a study of 12th graders, conducted yearly since 1976; the American Freshman survey of first-year students at four-year colleges and universities, which began in 1966; and the well-known General Social Survey, which features a cross-section of American adults.

“If Independents as a new ‘silent majority’ become more vocal, they may change the frustratingly confrontational and paralyzing dynamics created by the polarized political parties.”

They find that, over the past 45 years, an increasing percentage of Americans place themselves on one or the other political extreme. Among adults, for example, twice as many identified as “extremely” liberal or conservative between the 1970s and the 2010s, with slightly fewer identifying as “slightly” leaning in one direction or the other.

“The increase in political polarization is mostly due to more Americans identifying as strongly Republican or very conservative,” they add. (Could this be due to the Fox News effect? If so, thanks a lot, Roger Ailes.)

If you’re counting on Millennials to turn this around, as was suggested by another recent study, Twenge and her colleagues provide words of caution. Their analysis finds Millennials “do not appear to be usually Democratic, falling near the average across all generations.”

Specifically, “Millennial 12th graders and college students were more conservative, and more likely to identify as Republican, than Boomers were in the 1970s, and were slightly more conservative than GenXers overall,” they write. “If these young Americans “become more Republican and conservative as they age, as previous generations have done, they will not be the highly Democratic and liberal generation many have anticipated.”

But how can this be, given Millennials’ well-known liberal positions on social issues such as gay marriage? Well, other research has found that they aren’t all that left-leaning on other matters, including fiscal policy and gun control. And then there’s the aforementioned disconnect between political identification and policy preferences.

Twenge and her colleagues find that, among this group, self-described liberals and conservatives have very similar (traditionally liberal) views on issues of tolerance and equality. It seems right-wing Millennials are “not necessarily subscribing to the same brand of conservatism present in 1970,” they write.

The results put the current presidential campaign into an interesting perspective. Donald Trump’s campaign is built on intolerance of ethnic and religious minorities. Will that hurt the Republican brand in the long run among younger voters, for whom the “conservative” label means something different? Democrats certainly hope so.

And speaking of hope, Twenge (the author of Generation Me) and her colleagues find some in the increasing percentage of Americans who call themselves Independents. They report 46 percent of adults identified themselves in that way in 2014, compared to 30 percent in 1989.

While they almost all lean one way or the other, their unwillingness to attach themselves to a party could put them in a unique position “to de-escalate party polarization, should they take advantage of their growing numbers.”

“If Independents as a new ‘silent majority’ become more vocal,” the researchers conclude, “they may change the frustratingly confrontational and paralyzing dynamics created by the polarized political parties.”

Surely something must change. Thanks to our perceived polarization, we are creating a less-civil society and an increasingly dysfunctional government, even though we are no further apart on actual issues than we were a half-century ago.

Perhaps our brains really have been taken over by invasive bugs from outer space.