Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Partisan politics in Congress the product of a more polarized electorate

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 11:16 PM EDT, Thu June 12, 2014
  • Politically engaged Americans are increasingly partisan, according to a new Pew poll
  • Hyper-partisanship at the local level eventually leads to hyper-partisanship in Congress, experts say
  • Those who trend more moderate are also less likely to be politically-engaged, the Pew poll found
  • All of these factors have create gridlock on the Congressional level, experts say

Washington (CNN) -- In the enclaves of Richmond, Virginia, the political and ideological dividing line is a highway.

On one side of Interstate 195 is Windsor Farms, a wealthy community designed to look like an English village. It is home to a historic country club and its residents are 75% Republican, according to an analysis by the Cook Political Report.

On the other side of the highway is Carytown, a community that prides itself on its urban chic shops and restaurants. It held a craft beer festival this past weekend and its residents are 75% Democrat.

Snowe: How to foster bipartisanship
Sen. Manchin eyeing the exit?
Bipartisan vets deal in Senate
Poll: The worst Congress in our lifetime

"Clearly one side of the city of Richmond is very old money and conservative and on the other side of the street, it's a very progressive college community," said David Wasserman, U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report. "This is a fairly recent development. We've never seen this type of polarization on a neighborhood level to such a degree and it's only increasing."

The growth in the number of Americans who sort themselves into communities like Windsor Farms or Carytown, consistently express either liberal or conservative views and the disappearing overlap between those two groups illustrates why the country — and the Congress -- is so divided, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

"Voters are plenty to blame for the current predicament they complain about," Wasserman said. "People want to live next to others who share their political and cultural values. It makes it easier for politicians to gerrymander because voters are already presorted."

And that type of redistricting means a more hyper-partisan class of voters is more likely to send like-minded, hyper-partisan lawmakers to Washington to represent them, political analysts said.

It's your fault: How our 'tribes' help create gridlock in Congress

The Pew report found that increasingly, the most politically active and engaged Americans are opting to live in "ideological silos," communities peopled with like-minded individuals who passionately hold on to partisan views and eschew those whose opinions differ.

Among the report's findings:

  • "The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. And ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past."
  • "As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican."
  • "At a time of increasing gridlock on Capitol Hill, many on both the left and the right think the outcome of political negotiations between Obama and Republican leaders should be that their side gets more of what it wants."
  • "People with down-the-line ideological positions -- especially conservatives -- are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views," the report found. "Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families."

Why does this matter?

Because, as the report points out, over the past 20 years, "partisan animosity has increased substantially" — more than doubling, in fact. The most politically engaged Americans are most likely to see only the rightness of their own positions and view the opposing sides ideas as "so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being."

Meanwhile, the majority of Americans, those who hold more centrist views, are content to sit on the sidelines, staying out of the political fray, the Pew report found.

This is a recipe for legislative gridlock, political demographers and analysts said.

Lynne Cheney: Partisanship is a Madisonian principle

Think of it as a ripple effect, Bill Bishop, co-author of "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart," told CNN last year.

"Like-minded groups, over time, become more extreme in how they're like-minded," he said.

This means in order to be considered a "good Democrat" or "good Republican" citizens, and the lawmakers who represent them, are pressured to think and vote only in a certain, partisan way, political demographers and analysts have found.

And woe the person who votes against the group-think.

Take for example, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose 7th Congressional District includes Windsor Farms. His opponent, Dave Brat, a political newcomer and economics professor was able to use Cantor's openness to considering a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants as an example of how the veteran lawmaker was out of touch with his conservative base.

Cantor lost the Republican primary on Tuesday by double digits.

Down but not done: Cantor's loss not end for immigration reform

Cantor had been "taking conservative position after conservative position after conservative position, but almost 100% wasn't enough for these folks," CNN political analyst John Avlon said.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Nearly 7 in 10 Americans are angry at the direction the country is headed and 53% of Americans disapprove of President Barack Obama's job performance.
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
John King, Jackie Kucinich and Ed O'Keefe on a new CNN/ORC national poll, with just one week to go until the midterms.
updated 4:39 PM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
The formula is well known in presidential politics: Help campaign for your party's candidates in the midterms, run for president two years later.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
The number making Mike Podhorzer anxious these days is 15.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
The woman who voted next to President Obama says she was "embarrassed and just shocked," after her fiancé jokingly told him "Mr. President, don't touch my girlfriend."
updated 8:39 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
House Speaker John Boehner is trashing President Obama's foreign policy on the campaign trail by talking up someone Republicans have spent years running from: George W. Bush.
updated 5:36 PM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tried to stamp out criticism of his policy to quarantine health care workers returning from Ebola hot zones, describing his rule as "common sense."
updated 3:29 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
VP Joe Biden delivered a wonky, populist speech in Davenport where he endorsed Bruce Braley for Senate and lambasted the GOP for forgetting about the middle class.
updated 3:05 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
President Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are steering clear of competitive House districts but Republicans are still making sure their presence is felt.
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
The campaign trail for two candidates in top-tier Senate races took a detour to a Capitol Hill committee room for a high-profile hearing on Ebola.
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tied his party's 2016 White House prospects to the election just one week away -- and how Republicans govern over the next two years.
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
The midterm elections are a week away. Control of the Senate will be decided by a handful of close contests that remain competitive in the final days.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Former President Bill Clinton poked fun at his reputation as Democrats' "campaigner-in-chief" during a political swing through New Hampshire.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
updated 7:11 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
President Barack Obama canceled a campaign trip at the last minute to stay in Washington and spearhead a more aggressive national response on Ebola.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Four weeks away from the 2014 midterm elections and even some Democratic operatives struggle to imagine a scenario where they retain control of the U.S. Senate. The terrain and current momentum seem all but overwhelming and against them.
updated 6:36 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
National Democrats have pulled their TV advertising in Kentucky, signaling that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is increasingly likely to survive in what had been one of 2014's marquee races.
updated 10:40 AM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
The most important race this year is the one for U.S. Senate in Kentucky. But the stakes are high in others, too.
updated 11:56 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
The performance in the early voting arena could be a big battleground within the battlegrounds.
updated 2:23 AM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
The midterm elections are quickly approaching and the threat of ISIS is slowly creeping into political ads.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
The chairman of the Republican National Committee is trying to tear away at the party's obstructionist image.
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
CNN's Inside Politics panel discusses the President's troubles with winning over the public on the economy.
updated 4:39 PM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
The formula is well known: Help campaign for your party's candidates in the midterms, run for president two years later.
updated 2:01 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
About a month from the midterms House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was already predicting a sweep for her party in the 2016 election.
The conservative-leaning outfit has emerged as one of the most powerful actors in American political campaigns.
Voters head to the polls over the coming months to choose their candidates for November's general election. Here's who votes when.
updated 3:16 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
The major story line so far in 2014 is the ongoing battle that pits mainstream Republicans against tea party and anti-establishment groups.
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
S. E. Cupp interviews Carly Fiorina about her effort to rally conservative female voters for Senate races.