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 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT