January 29, 2004

A Year of Contention at Home and Abroad

2003 Year-end Report

In 2003, Americans found themselves increasingly at odds with each other – and the rest of the world. The title of our major survey of the nation’s political landscape captured the public mood: “Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized.”

That survey, based on more than 4,000 interviews and drawing on trends dating back to 1987, found an electorate that once again is viewing issues and events mostly through a political prism. The spirit of national unity that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is now a distant memory, swept away amid rising polarization. Republicans and Democrats are now further apart on basic attitudes toward government, national security, business and other issues than at any point since 1994, when voter anger propelled GOP into the control of Capitol Hill.

America’s international image, already in decline, went into free fall as a consequence of the war in Iraq. The second major installment of the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that the war widened the rift between the U.S. and its Western European allies and inflamed the Muslim world. Yet that survey also showed that throughout much of the world, American-promoted values – free markets, the rule of law, and democracy – are broadly accepted.

At home, the war in Iraq and a slow economy cast a shadow over President Bush’s 2004 prospects. However, Bush’s approval ratings remained in the mid-50% range and the Democratic field had a long way to go to sort itself out — and to pose a serious threat to unseat the president.

Americans also were increasingly divided along religious lines, a trend underscored by the religious backlash against gay marriage. A survey cosponsored with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that churchgoers who hear critical messages about homosexuality from the pulpit are far more unlikely than others to express negative views of gays.

This report summarizes what we learned from nearly 50,000 interviews in the U.S. and worldwide, as published in 31 research reports and 14 commentaries during the course of the year.