Divided we stand. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg
Divided we stand. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Americans are too worried and at the same time not worried enough about political polarization. Ideological rivalry is a good thing, not a bad thing: It's the reason for democracy, not a drawback of democracy. However, when rivalry hardens into a sullen standoff -- not a contest of ideas but a bloody-minded refusal to engage -- you have a problem. And to put it mildly, the U.S. has a problem.

The Pew Research Center's new report on the polarization of U.S. public opinion is essential reading. It documents the growing ideological distance between Democrats and Republicans, not just in Washington but in the country at large. The information is fascinating and disturbing -- but it doesn't do justice to the pathology it's describing. You could put it this way: The quantity of polarization isn't the main thing; what counts is the quality of polarization.

The Pew study shows that the ideological gap between the median Democrat and the median Republican (measured on a 10-point scale of political values) has widened a lot over the past 20 years. Today, according to Pew, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, compared with only 64 percent in 1994; 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican, up from 70 percent. Also, more liberals than before are consistently liberal -- that is, liberal in most or all of their views. The same goes for conservatives.

These headline findings say something useful about polarization. But in themselves they needn't be cause for concern. Ideological rivalry is fine. What's worrying is the changing character of the rivalry.

The Pew study gets at this with some of its other findings. Thirty-eight percent of Democrats now have a "very unfavorable view" of the Republican Party (up from 16 percent in 1994); 43 percent of Republicans (up from 17 percent) feel the same way about the Democratic Party. Alongside this growing partisan antipathy is a striking separation of liberals and conservatives by geography and culture:

Liberals would rather live in cities, while conservatives prefer rural areas and small towns; liberals are more likely to say racial and ethnic diversity is important in a community; conservatives emphasize shared religious faith. And while 73% of consistent liberals say it’s important to them to live near art museums and theaters, just 23% of consistent conservatives agree -- one of their lowest priorities of eight community characteristics tested ...

Conservatives and liberals also are most likely to confine political conversations to those who share their views. Fully half of consistent conservatives and 35 percent of consistent liberals say it is important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views -- the highest shares of any of the ideological groups. 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.

This physical and cultural separation militates against the contest of ideas -- against what should be polarization's redeeming virtue. There's no contest unless people who disagree actually engage. Apparently, that's something many of the most committed conservatives and liberals would rather avoid. Instead, they talk among themselves about the stupid or evil people on the other side. This is where partisans who celebrate robust debate flatter themselves outrageously: Echo-chamber politics has nothing whatsoever to do with debate.

As well as reading the Pew study, have a look at this paper by Shanto Iyengar of Stanford University and colleagues. It proposes a different definition of polarization -- one based not on ideology but on "social distance." "Using data from a variety of sources, we demonstrate that both Republicans and Democrats increasingly dislike, even loathe, their opponents," the authors say.

Ramesh Ponnuru criticized the Pew study for failing to understand that people can disagree without hating each other. That's true: They can. Yet my own experience of spending part of each week in Washington and part in West Virginia made me unsurprised by Iyengar's findings. Friends and neighbors in both places, whom I like and respect equally, do indeed live in separate worlds. They are at best uncomprehending of each other, and far too often, if I dare to get them started on the subject, they are frankly contemptuous.

One other factor, too little noticed if my reading is any guide, makes this worsening divide especially dangerous in the U.S. This country is highly politicized. That is, partisan politics reaches deep into every corner of American society and culture. That sets it apart from the U.K., for instance, where the realm of party politics is hemmed by a tradition of politically independent public administration.

Great swathes of American civil society have a partisan-political overlay. The upper reaches of the civil service are partisan. Policy think tanks, by and large, are partisan. Philanthropy and party politics mix. The U.S. Supreme Court has liberals and conservatives. Planning a career in politics? Serving as a public prosecutor is a good place to start. In the U.S., political divisions cut more widely, as well as more deeply, than in many other countries.

So include me among those who worry about polarization. Not because there's too much strong disagreement and genuine ideological competition. Despite all the noise, the U.S. has too little of that. Count me alarmed about a society that runs on politics, and whose most energetic citizens are dividing ever more coherently into factions that can't stand each other.

To contact the author of this article: Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.