Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Hyper-partisanship dragging down nation

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Thu June 7, 2012
Patty Osheim and brother Jim Osheim show their disagreement at a 2011 protest over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's actions.
Patty Osheim and brother Jim Osheim show their disagreement at a 2011 protest over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's actions.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: Pew study confirms politics divides Americans more than race, class, age, gender
  • He says it's bigotry, a learned behavior profoundly alienating Americans from each other
  • He says GOP support of social safety net, environment way down, Democrats about same
  • Avlon: Split undermines core belief of e pluribus unum

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- It's not your imagination: Our politics are more polarized than at any point in recent history.

That's the conclusion of a new survey from the indispensable Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. And if you needed more evidence of the passionate and sometimes poisonous polarization afflicting our nation, you didn't have to look further than the crowds in Wisconsin on Tuesday night after the recall attempt.

Here's the real wake-up call: Americans are more divided about partisan politics right now than they are about race, class, gender and age. That's right: Forget the original sin of slavery and the longstanding fights over civil rights -- those old divisions now seem small compared with perceptions of whether a person is a Republican or Democrat.

John Avlon
John Avlon

Welcome to the new bigotry, where a person's partisan identification is a source of prejudice, seen as a reflection of fundamentally different values, representative of an alien America.

Like any form of prejudice, this is learned behavior, exacerbated by the daily drumbeat of partisan media. Conservatives are led to believe that liberals are essentially less patriotic and secretly socialist, while some liberals believe that conservatives are bigoted Bible thumpers. The mutual distrust leads members of different parties to feel unfairly judged by the other side, further fueling polarization -- and so fellow Americans divide into warring camps, us against them.

Partisan difference didn't always seem like an unbridgeable divide. But over the past 25 years, the split on basic values between Republicans and Democrats has skyrocketed. For example, on the issue of the environment, at the end of the Reagan era, 86% of Republicans and 93% of Democrats believed that "there needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment."

Elections roundtable takes your questions
Obama, Romney court country fans
Effect of Wisconsin recall election
Begala: Wisconsin can't predict election

That broad consensus has fallen apart -- now, 47% of Republicans support that statement, while Democrats' sentiment remains the same. Likewise, take a look at attitudes regarding the social safety net -- a quarter century ago 62% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats believed that government should "take care of people that could not take care of themselves." Today, 40% of Republicans believe in that aspect of the social contract, while 75% of Democrats still do. What happened to compassionate conservatism?

These policy divides reflect increased ideological and demographic differences between the two parties. Over two-thirds of Republicans self-identify as conservative and 87% are non-Hispanic white, with an average age of 50. Democrats are evenly split between liberals and centrists, more racially diverse than ever before and less likely to be religious or have "old-fashioned values about family and marriage."

There is however a hopeful sign beneath the hyper-partisanship -- a healthy rebellion against this division and consequent dysfunction in Washington. According to the Pew survey, a record number of Americans are declaring their independence and proactively rejecting both the Republican and Democratic parties. In fact, there are more independents than Democrats or Republicans. It is a direct reaction against the unprecedented polarization of the two parties.

And this ain't no mushy middle. As in surveys past, we can see that independent voters tend to be closer on economic issues to Republicans and closer to Democrats on social issues. Most importantly, while the two parties are deeply polarized, independent voters' attitudes on issues most closely parallel the American people as a whole. At heart, most Americans are nonideological problem-solvers, and that's a quality we see less and less of in our politicians.

Why does this growing polarization matter? First, because it is resulting in an inability of the two parties to reason together on pressing issues such as improving the economy or dealing with the deficit and the debt. But more broadly, it risks undermining a core bit of American wisdom expressed in our national motto -- e pluribus unum: out of many, one.

Democracy requires competing political parties, but they are not supposed to take the place of tribal affiliations. That they are is evidence of group-think that pushes the idea that people who think differently about politics or policy are not merely mistaken but a clear and present danger to the Constitution. That's the way political opponents become enemies -- even (and especially) if we don't know them personally.

Changing the culture of hyper-partisanship will take time. It requires pushing back at the constant drumbeat of partisan media that polarizes in the pursuit of profit. It requires showing that there is a strong alternative, a better way to conduct civic debates. But this effort is essential to restoring common sense and collegiality to our politics.

We can take comfort from the wise words of the original founding father, George Washington, who devoted a considerable portion of his farewell address to warning against the dangers and distortions of hyper-partisanship: "One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts," he wrote. "You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection."

The Pew survey shows that our bonds of fraternal affection are being strained by hyper-partisanship and polarization. But this is a deviation from our best traditions as Americans. And healing this rift is essential to regaining our full strength as a nation.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT