Partisan differences now divide Americans more sharply than distinctions of race, religion, education or sex as a decade-long wave has pushed Democrats and Republicans to opposite corners on a wide range of formerly less partisan issues.

On matters as disparate as environmental protection, support for the social safety net and immigration, former areas of bipartisan agreement have dissolved as Democrats have moved left and Republicans have shifted to the right, according to a major new study by the Pew Research Center, which has tracked American values over the past 25 years.

That polarization has important practical consequences – forecasting continued gridlock in national politics.

One of the hottest debates among people who study American politics centers on whether the trench warfare so obvious in Congress mostly involves conflicts among elected officials and political interest groups or reflects a deeper divide among voters. Are politicians ignoring constituents’ desires for bipartisan solutions or representing a divided electorate all too well?

President Barack Obama first became nationally famous in 2004 in part for a memorable statement of one side of that argument: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he said in a speech to the Democratic convention that year, “there is the United States of America.”

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