Political polarization explained via Gallup: the Democratic Party in America has become more liberal over time

One of the biggest things we’ve been hearing about in American politics for the past 18-24 months is the increasing polarization and partisan breakdown of how things function. It all seems pretty logical, but now, via a new Gallup study of 18,000 Americans across 13 different 2013 polls, we may have some more/new insight.

Here’s the basic deal: Gallup began doing these self-identification-of-politics polls in 1992. Around 1996, despite Clinton in the White House, the lowest number of people ever (16%) called themselves liberal. After 2000, though, it was above 20% each year. “Moderate” was the dominant self-ID of the 1990s and often tied with “conservative” in the 2000s. After 2009, though, the highest self-ID every year has been “conservative.” (This probably ties to the financial crisis and tightening of economic belts.) Back in 1996, the difference between those ID’ing as “conservative” and those ID’ing as “liberal” was 22 points; in 2013, that gap is tied with 2007 and 2008 for the smallest it’s been since 1992 (15 points). In sum: more people still ID themselves as conservative than anything else, but …

… within the Democratic side, the shift is intriguing. 43% of Democrats call themselves liberal in 2013. In 2000, that number was 29%. Currently, 36% of Democrats call themselves “moderate.” That number was 44% in 2000.


See what’s happening here, then? The Democratic party, for much of the past 20 years, was fairly diverse in terms of the “idea standpoint.” Now it’s increasingly dominated by people associating themselves as liberals.

Now let’s look at the GOP side. In 2000, 31% of Republicans called themselves moderate; 62% called themselves conservative. Those numbers now? 23% and 70%. Conservative association has risen at the same time as liberal association has risen. The two major parties are, thus, moving in polar opposite directions in terms of identification.


Those classifying themselves as “independent” over these same time frames tend to be more conservative.

The overall implication of all this is that, if you extrapolate it to Congress, nothing will likely ever get done as the two groupings move further and further apart. This can also lead to shifts in where people fundamentally even want to live, and has dropped the amount of true “swing districts” in Congressional elections from about 103 in the late 1990s to about 35 or so today. Obviously, the next road-blocked political event after this year will be the 2016 primaries on both sides — and primaries tend to be an extremely polarized series of events. If America is truly becoming more polarized on the whole, 2016 should be one of the most interesting elections of modern times.

Ted Bauer