In 1987, midway through Ronald Reagan’s second term in office, party was one among many fundamental cleavages in American society. Republicans and Democrats held different values, but the differences were on par with the differences of opinion between blacks and whites, wealthy and poor, or college grads and those without a college degree.
This is no longer the case. Since 1987 – and particularly over just the past decade – the country has experienced a stark increase in partisan polarization. Across 48 different questions covering values about government, foreign policy, social and economic issues and other realms, the average difference between the opinions of Republicans and Democrats now stands at 18 percentage points. This is nearly twice the size of the gap in surveys conducted from 1987-2002.
The growing divide between Democrats and Republicans spans a wide range of beliefs, with record-wide gaps for many value dimensions Pew Research has tracked over the past 20 to 25 years. In most cases, this represents a widening of already existing partisan differences – particularly when it comes to the role of government. For example, Democrats have always been more committed than Republicans to government responsibilities in providing a social safety net and actively addressing inequality in the nation. But in both of those areas, the divide between Democratic and Republican values has nearly doubled over the past quarter century.
Views on the importance of environmental protection have arguably been the most pointed area of polarization. When these questions were first asked 20 years ago, there was virtually no disagreement across party lines. Even as recently as 2003, Republicans and Democrats were, on average, only 13 points apart on questions related to the environment. That gap has now tripled to an average of 39 points – one of the largest values gaps in the study.
Religion and social conservatism have also arisen as new partisan divides over this period. When the project was first started in 1987, Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to express strong religious faith, cite the importance of daily prayer and express unwavering faith in God. While broad majorities in both parties continue to hold these views, the share of Democrats who do not has grown substantially.