WASHINGTON — It sounds like a cliche but it’s true. Conservatives and liberals don’t just differ in their political views. They like to live in different places, associate with like-minded people and have opposing views on the value of ethnic and religious diversity in their neighborhoods, according to a major new study by the Pew Research Center.
Political polarization is now deeply embedded in the United States — more so than at any time in recent history, according to the Pew study — and has intensified in recent years. The percentage of Americans who hold either consistently conservative or consistently liberal positions on major issues has doubled over the past decade and now accounts for fully one-fifth of all Americans.
Partisan combat has produced rising animosity, “bordering on a sense of alarm,” toward the opposite party. More than a third of all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and more than a quarter of all Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents see the other party as a threat to the nation’s well-being. Among the most politically engaged and most ideologically polarized Americans, this apocalyptic view of the threat posed by the other party is substantially higher.
Most Americans are not so consistently ideological in their attitudes. But those who have more mixed attitudes also are less likely to be actively engaged in the political process. The most politically engaged happen to be the most ideologically consistent and they have made their voices heard.
“Many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process,” according to the study.
The Pew study, based on a survey of 10,013 Americans, adds to a growing body of research about the partisan gulf in America that has shaped attitudes, voting patterns and political debate during the presidencies of Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. As the Pew study puts it, “The level of antipathy that members of each party feel toward the opposing party has surged over the past two decades.”
But the latest research adds a fresh and distinctive dimension by trying to understand how polarized political attitudes intersect and perhaps influence the everyday lives of people. The findings lend credence to the proposition that there are divergent cultural and geographical components associated with political polarization.
“If people living in ‘deep red’ or ‘deep blue’ America feel like they inhabit distinctly different worlds, it is in part because they seek out different types of communities, both geographic and social,” the Pew analysis concludes.
Substantial majorities of Americans with liberal views prefer to live in a community where houses are smaller but where stores, restaurants and schools are within walking distance. The more liberal someone is, the more likely he or she is to express that preference.
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, similarly large percentages of conservatives would rather live where houses are larger but where schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away, and the more conservative they are, the more they prefer it.
What is the ideal community? To conservatives it is a small town or rural area. To liberals it is a city or suburb — although the suburbs are neither side’s favored location. Just 4 percent of those who are the most consistently conservative say they prefer to live in a city while just 11 percent of those with the most consistently liberal views prefer to live in a rural area.
More than a quarter of all Americans now say it is important to live where people share their political views. More than one-third say most of their close friends have opinions similar to theirs. Conservatives are more likely to say this than liberals, however, with more than six in 10 “consistent conservatives” saying their friends have like-minded political attitudes.
On some questions, liberals and conservatives agree. Big majorities across the political spectrum want to live in communities with good public schools and access to outdoor activities like hiking, fishing or camping. They also put a premium on living near their extended families.
But on the question of accessibility to the arts, for example, there is a vast divide. Just 23 percent of the most consistently conservative Americans say being near art museums or theaters is important in deciding where to live. Among the most liberal, nearly three in four say proximity to such amenities is important.
Liberals say ethnic and racial diversity are important factors in determining where they want to live, with three-quarters of the most consistently liberal saying that. Among those who are most conservative, however, just one in five put a premium on such diversity in selecting a place to live.
In contrast, a majority of conservatives say that living near people who share their religious faith is an important feature in deciding where to live. But fewer than one in five Americans with consistently liberal attitudes say that sharing the religious faith of their neighbors is an important factor in where they live.
Others have previously explored this aspect of polarization. Bill Bishop, with Robert G. Cushing, published a book in 2009 called “The Big Sort” that highlighted the deepening geographical separation of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and the degree to which the gap between red and blue areas of the country has widened.
Craig Gilbert, the Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recently published the results of a deep study of voting patterns and political attitudes in the Milwaukee area that underscored the political segregation in one battleground state. “Metropolitan Milwaukee is the most polarized part of a polarized state in a polarized nation,” he wrote.
The Pew study took some of this work a step further by asking specific questions about living preferences and combined those responses with the findings about political attitudes. The study describes an America of “ideological silos” that now shape the countryside.
“It is an enduring stereotype — conservatives prefer suburban McMansions while liberals like urban enclaves — but one grounded in reality,” the study concludes.
Although extreme partisans express significant hostility toward the opposite party, this generally does not affect how people see political opposites personally. Most say it does not matter to them if a family member were to marry someone of another race or someone born outside the United States.
But 30 percent of consistent conservatives and 23 percent of consistent liberals say they would be unhappy if a family member married someone from the opposite party.
Almost half of all Americans say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member were to marry someone who doesn’t believe in God. That includes 73 percent of those who are consistently conservative but just 24 percent of those who are consistently liberal.
The study looks across two decades in American political life and concludes that the gap between the parties has widened as partisanship has intensified. The typical Republican is “now more conservative than nearly all the Democrats (94 percent)” and the typical Democrat “is more liberal than 92 percent of Republicans.”
Two decades ago, almost a quarter of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat and almost a fifth of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, among the most politically engaged people in both parties, just 1 percent of Republicans are more liberal than the median Democrat and just 2 percent of Democrats are more conservative than the median Republican.
Democrats have moved steadily toward the left over the past two decades, with the percentage who are liberal on all or most matters nearly doubling in that time. In that same period, the percentage of Republicans who are right of center has risen from 45 percent to 53 percent.
But Republicans have followed a different path. Between 1994 and 2004, a substantial number of Republicans moved back toward the center in their views. Since then, however, they have “veered sharply back to the right” at a rate that “has matched, if not exceeded, the rate at which Democrats have become more liberal,” according to Pew’s findings.