Political polarization is based on a complex picture of partisans

The study evaluates the public’s views on a range of issues and divides Americans into nine groups, divided largely on partisan lines. Four fall mainly in the Democratic Party and another four mainly in the Republican Party, with the last group made up of largely aloof Americans who are less clearly associated with either side.

The groups within each party differ in their ideological positions, demographic composition and political engagement. And the analysis shows that the coalitions that form within the parties can vary depending on the topic.

According to Pew, “the divide that divides Republicans and Democrats sometimes obscures the divisions and diversity of views that exist in both party-political coalitions – and the fact that many Americans don’t easily fit into either.”

Despite the strong partisan polarization that dominates opinions on most issues, the research shows some similar patterns between the parties. Both see lower overall engagement and a partisan connection among the youngest subgroups of their parties. At the ideological ends of either side of the spectrum are those who are most committed. And the internal rifts within both parties have shifted somewhat since the last Pew typology report four years ago.

Here’s a look at what connects and divides the two big parties in American politics.

The Republicans

The Republican Party, according to the Pew report, is facing internal divisions over “some principles that have long been associated with the GOP: an affinity with corporations and corporations, support for low taxes, and opposition to abortion.” And there is disagreement within the party about how to deal with criticism of former President Donald Trump. But they largely agree in their desire for a smaller government and their opposition to the idea that the country is still grappling with systemic racial and gender inequality.

Pew’s analysis reveals four subgroups of the Republican Party:

  • “Faith and Flag Conservatives” (around 23% of the GOP) are older, politically active, predominantly Christian and “intensely conservative in all areas”.
  • The “populist right” (approx. 23%) has less formal education, lives in a more rural area and is cautious about immigrants and large companies.
  • The “ambivalent right” (around 18%), a younger and less doctrinal group, feel less attached to the Republican Party, but maintain a conservative attitude towards race, gender and the role of government.
  • And the “committed conservatives” (approx. 15%) are highly educated and politically active Republicans, whose ideological principles are “softening” on issues such as immigration and international relations.

There are some clear similarities across these cohorts:

  • A denial of concerns about racial and gender injustice. In all four of the Republican affiliated typology groups, less than a quarter say much more needs to be done to ensure equal rights for Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds. Two-thirds or more in each group oppose the idea that white Americans benefit from social advantages that black Americans do not. More than 6 in 10 say the barriers that once made it harder for women to advance than men are now largely removed. Most also consider “people who easily offend things others say” a major problem in the United States.
  • A preference for smaller governments. Two-thirds or more in each group say the government is doing too many things that are best left to corporations and individuals, and most say it is not the government’s job to protect people from themselves.
  • A focus on military strength. All four groups want the US to work to remain the world’s only military superpower, and about a tenth of all groups believe that the size of the military should be reduced.

But there are crucial differences:

  • Whether they believe the economic system is fair. Only 17% of Republicans on the “populist right” – compared to 70% or more in the other three groups – agree that most companies make fair and equitable profits. The “populist right” is also characterized by its majority support for raising tax rates for high-income households.
  • Where do they stand on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. While two-thirds of the Faith and Flag Conservatives say the legality of same-sex marriage in the US is bad for society, half or less of the other groups agree. And while 84% of the Faith and Flag Conservatives say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, only 44% agree with the “ambivalent rights”.
  • How do you feel about immigration? The “Populist Right” and “Faith and Flag Conservatives” have tough views on immigrants, including those legally entering the country – more than 80% in both groups “say illegal immigration is a very big national problem,” and significant proportions want fewer immigrants to be legally admitted to the US.
  • How to deal with Trump. When asked to rate their feelings towards the former president on a scale of 0 to 100, Faith and Flag Conservatives gave him an average score of 83, with Populist Right and Committed Conservatives rating him in the 1970s, and the “Ambivalent Right” means he’s only 43 years old – little higher than their opinion of President Joe Biden. Three-quarters or more of the Faith and Flag Conservatives and the “Populist Right” say the GOP is not critical to accept Trump from elected officials, while a smaller 63% of “committed conservatives” and 40% of “ambivalent law” say the same thing.

The Democrats

Democratic Party supporters largely agree on economic issues and the general need for a greater role for government. Fault lines in the Democratic Party arise from ideological divisions over how far this enlarged government should go, particularly on anti-racism, climate and immigration policies. There are also divisions in military policy and in the perception of America’s role in the world, as well as, in some respects, race and ethnicity, age, and education.

The largest of the four subgroups of Democrats are:

  • Democratic Mainstays (28% of Democrats and Democrat-minded Independents), a racially diverse, older core made up mostly of self-appointed Democrats. About 4 in 10 black Democrats join this category, the largest concentration of any racial or ethnic group within the democratic coalition, and most in this group consider themselves moderate.
  • On the ideological left of the main democratic pillars are “Establishment Liberals” (23%), a diverse sub-group of the Democratic Party with broadly liberal views.
  • A smaller but very active part of the liberal democrats is the “progressive left” (12%). This younger, less heterogeneous and better educated group of Democrats tend to view themselves as very liberal, hold negative views of the Republican Party and say that government services should be greatly expanded.
  • After all, the “outside left” is the youngest segment of the Democratic Party, accounting for around 16% of the party’s coalition. Regardless of their age, this group is characterized by their dissatisfaction with the government and the Democratic Party, although they hold largely liberal ideological views.

The strongest points of agreement within the democratic coalition are:

  • A unified view that the economy is geared towards the powerful. More than 8 in 10 in any democratic subgroup agree that the country’s economic system unfairly favors the powerful. Almost everyone wants large corporate and corporate tax rates to rise, and there is widespread support across all groups for raising the federal minimum wage to $ 15 an hour.
  • An overarching belief that government needs to do more to solve problems. At least three-quarters in every sub-group of the Democratic Party say the government should do more to solve problems – a high of 98% for the “progressive left”.
  • Broad agreement that much needs to be done to ensure equal rights across racial and ethnic boundaries. About three-quarters or more in each of the Democratic subgroups agree that much more needs to be done to ensure that all Americans have equal rights, and majorities in all Democratic subgroups say that whites benefit greatly from the benefits the blacks don’t have.

And the critical dividing lines for Democrats are:

  • How Much Government Should Do to Solve Problems. While Democrats broadly agree that more government action is needed, they differ on the extent of that effort. While 63% of the “progressive left” say that state services should be greatly expanded, this drops to about a third in the other democratic subgroups.
  • How to Address Racial Inequality. Democrats argue over whether achieving greater equality will require a full rebuild of US law and key institutions. While 71% of “Progressive Left” Democrats say a complete overhaul is needed, the “Establishment Liberals” see this drop to just 29%.
  • Where they stand on crime and justice issues. There is a gap of almost 40 points between “Main Democratic Pillars” (11%) and “Progressive Left” (48%) on whether spending on policing should be reduced. And about three-quarters of the “main democratic carriers” say that violent crime is a very big national problem, compared to about a quarter of the “progressive left”.
  • How far the government should go to fight climate change. While most democratic groups agree that climate change is a big problem, and generally say that environmental regulations are worth the cost, they split over whether the US should switch entirely to renewable energy sources. Only 42% of the “democratic pillars” say the US should phase out oil, coal and natural gas, against majorities in the “outsider left” and “progressive left”.
  • How happy you are with your party. While a majority of the “mainstream democrats” and “establishment liberals” say the Democratic Party makes them proud, less than half of the “progressive left” and less than a quarter of the “outsider left” agree. Among the “outsider left” in particular, only about half say the Democratic Party represents them well, compared with 8 in 10 or more among other subgroups.
The Pew Research Center based its typology primarily on a survey of 10,221 U.S. adults reached July 8-18, 2021 via a nationwide representative online panel, with an error rate of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points for the whole Sample. Data from additional surveys of some participants were also included. The survey responses were used to divide the public into nine groups based on their responses to 27 questions about social and political values. Further details on the method can be found here.
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