Partisanship, Ideology, and Polarization

These three terms are practically ubiquitous in discussions about politics. Partisan and ideological struggles color much of political battles, and there are countless lamentations of polarization pulling the respective sides of the political aisle away from each other.

The terms also get somewhat muddled and used interchangeably when all three refer to different concepts, particularly partisanship and ideology. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, partisanship and ideology are NOT the same thing. Partisanship refers to siding with Republicans or Democrats (or lack thereof) on issues. Ideology refers to falling on the conservative or liberal ends of the spectrum. Of course, the two concepts are related: Republicans are mostly conservatives, and Democrats are mostly liberals. But there are exceptions, which is why party affiliation and ideology cannot be equated entirely. (Not to mention it gets more complicated when you break it down into economic and social ideology or individual issues).

Polarization refers to just how much an individual takes a given side. Polarization, then, can refer either to partisanship or ideology. Partisan polarization is how much a person sides with either the Republican or Democratic Parties. Ideological polarization is how much one takes a conservative or liberal stance on issues, and can also refer to how conservative or liberal they are on a particular issue or set of issues.


For the most part, partisan affiliation has held steady for the past several years. The latest Gallup numbers (September 4–12) peg the proportion of Republicans at 26%, Democrats at 27%, and Independents at 44%.¹ Gallup usually shows Democrats as slightly outnumbering Republicans, but the biggest plurality by far is Independents. When you go a bit further back, however, this divide was much bigger, noticeably so in much of 2004 and 2005.

Of course, not all Independents are the same. They aren’t uniformly “pure” independents. Some observers, such as David Magleby and Candice Nelson, argue that most independents aren’t really independents at all, but policy partisans that routinely lean one partisan way.² Whether this is truly the case is up for debate, but oftentimes independents do lean or way the other. Thus, polling will often ask independents if they lean towards the Republican or Democratic Parties. According to the latest Gallup numbers (September 4–12), 44% of the population were Republicans or Republican leaners, while 47% were Democrats or Democratic leaners.

Of course, while the two parties won’t differ on every single issue, they will on most of the debates that get big media coverage. There will be some variation within parties — for example, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is often considered the most moderate Democrat. But by and large, most big-name issues have what are considered Republican and Democratic stances. The two parties have been moving apart on many of them as well (more on that in the polarization section of this post).


Along with partisanship being different than ideology, I’ve noted previously that ideology also depends on what context we are talking about and what being a conservative or a liberal means to people. Nevertheless, it is still useful to know what percentage of people consider themselves a particular ideology. Gallup tracks this data as well. Here are some key data points from 2017:³

  • The gap between self-described conservatives and liberals has been narrowing for several years. Conservatives and moderates were tied at 35%, while liberals were at 26%.
  • The divergence between Democrats who describe themselves as liberal or conservative has sharply widened since 2001. In 2017, liberals came out to 50% of the Democratic Party, while it was 13% for conservatives. Moderate Democrats have stayed roughly the same.
  • The divide between conservatives and liberals in the Republican Party, in contrast, has stayed largely the same since 2004. However, liberals make up less of the Republican Party than conservatives do in the Democratic Party. Conservatives made up 69% of the Republican Party while only 5% of Republicans called themselves liberal.
  • For independents, 43% consider themselves moderate, 29% call themselves conservative, and 24% say they are liberal.

That’s for general ideology. It gets more complicated when you break it down into economic and social ideology. You have probably heard at least some people say that they are economically conservative but socially liberal, which is considered Libertarian. While there is a Libertarian Party, many Libertarians will also take membership in either of the Republican or Democratic Parties, depending on how importance they place on their economic or social values. Populists, on the other hand, oftentimes fit the mold of economically liberal but socially conservative, and many of them will take membership with either of the two major parties as well.

Increasing Polarization…Or Not?

Perhaps the most publicized aspect of politics is polarization. Many accounts and statistics suggest that it has risen sharply in recent times, particularly among political elites. More and more Americans have become consistently conservative or liberal on issues and animosity between parties has increased (along with some voices within the parties criticizing each other for not being conservative or liberal enough).⁴ The parties are growing further apart on many major issues.⁵ The divide grows even more among those who are more politically engaged compared to the general public.⁶

Polarization even extends beyond expressly political contexts and gets personal. Many people view the other side of the political aisle as “lazy,” “immoral,” “dishonest,” or a threat to the nation’s well-being. People often look for a spouse with the same partisan affiliation, buy houses near politically-similar neighbors or at least find it harder to get along with politically dissimilar neighbors, and exhibit more disapproval of their children marrying someone of the opposite party.⁷

It may seem, then, that it is universally accepted that polarization has increased over time, but there are some detractors. One of the most notable is Morris Fiorina. As part of his argument, Fiorina points to public opinion data, showing relatively little change in ideology in the public since the early 1970s.⁸

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Note that he says this specifically for the public but not elites (that is, major political players and officeholders), who he does agree are becoming more polarized.

So what exactly is going on? According to Fiorina, it is a process called “sorting.” In sorting, the overall public isn’t becoming polarized, but the two parties are. Fewer moderates populate the Republican and Democratic Parties and become independents. Meanwhile, conservatives and liberals are sorted into their “correct” parties, meaning that more of them are aligning with the party that is generally considered to be politically similar. Republicans and becoming more conservative. Democrats are becoming more liberal. But there is still a large proportion of people who call themselves independents and/or moderates. The Gallup data on ideological trends in the parties indicates some credence to this argument.³

Fiorina isn’t alone in this argument. Matt Levendusky and Neil Malhotra say that the media coverage of polarization makes us think it is more pervasive than it really is. This “false polarization” leads Democrats to often place Republicans further to the right on some issues than they actually are, while Republicans often place Democrats further to the left on some issues than they actually are.⁹ Jacob Westfall et. al. also corroborate this, and say this effect is exacerbated even more so amongst the more politically active, stronger identifiers with the Democratic or Republican Parties, and those who already hold extremely partisan attitudes.¹⁰ Douglas Ahler writes that not only is there overestimation of the extremity of the other party’s opinions, but that perceptions of polarization lead some people to take more extreme opinions themselves — a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, are we really that polarized along partisan and ideological lines? Have we moved further away from each other with less of us in the middle? Or is it simply a matter of perception? Both sides make some strong points. Perhaps both are right to some extent.

  1. Gallup. 2018. “Party Affiliation — Gallup Historical Trends.” (accessed October 24, 2018).
  2. David B. Magleby and Candice Nelson. 2012. “Independent Leaners as Policy Partisans: An Examination of Party Identification and Policy Views.” The Forum 10 (3).
  3. The following data comes from: Lydia Saad. Gallup. January 11, 2018. “Conservative Lead in U.S. Ideology Is Down To Single Digits.” (accessed October 24, 2018).
  4. Carroll Doherty. Pew Research Center. June 12, 2014. “Polarization in American politics.” (accessed October 25, 2018).
  5. Frank Newport and Andrew Dugan. Gallup. August 3, 2017. “Partisan Differences Growing on a Number of Issues.” (accessed October 24, 2018).
  6. Pew Research Center. October 20, 2017. “Political Polarization, 1994–2017.” (accessed October 24, 2018).
  7. Pew Research Center. June 22, 2016. “Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016.” (accessed October 24, 2018).
  8. Morris P. Fiorina. The American Interest. 2013. “America’s Missing Moderates: Hiding in Plain Sight.” March/April issue.
  9. Matt Levendusky and Neil Malhotra. The Washington Post. February 5, 2014. “The media make us think we’re more polarized than we really are.”
  10. Jacob Westfall et. al. 2015. “Perceiving Political Polarization in the United States: Party Identity Strength and Attitude Extremity Exacerbate the Perceived Partisan Divide.” Perspective on Psychological Science 10 (2): 145–158.
  11. Douglas J. Ahler. 2014. “Self-Fulfilling Misperceptions of Public Polarization.” The Journal of Politics. 76 (3): 607–620.

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Senior Page Editor - Sayfie Review, Assistant Staff Writer - Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers), M.A. in Political Science

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