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Democrats and Republicans are more divided on race, immigration and other issues than at any point in the past two decades, according to a new study on partisanship and political values.
The average “partisan gap” or divide between Republicans and Democrats’ beliefs on 10 key political issues — from immigration, race and foreign policy to government aid to the poor and same-sex marriage — is now 36 points, the Pew Research Center study found. The partisan gap was just 15 points when Pew began taking the survey in 1994.
It’s no surprise that partisanship has grown in recent years. But the study’s findings underscore just how dominant partisanship has become in shaping the national debate. Party affiliation now plays a bigger role in determining a person’s overall political views than their race, class, religious beliefs or education level.
“Two decades ago, the average partisan difference on these items were only somewhat wider than differences by religious attendance or educational attainment,” the study’s authors wrote. “Today, the party divide is much wider than any demographic difference.”
Attitudes about racial discrimination, for example, have shifted as a whole. Today, 41 percent of Americans believe racial discrimination is the leading reason why African-Americans “cannot get ahead,” the study found — the highest number since Pew started asking the question. Overall, 49 percent of Americans believe blacks who can’t get ahead are “mostly responsible” for their struggles, the study found.
But the partisan divide on race is striking. In 1994, there was a 13-point gap between Republicans and Democrats’ attitudes about racial discrimination. Today, the gap has grown to 50 points: 64 percent of Democrats believe racial discrimination is the “main reason why black people can’t get ahead,” compared to 14 percent of Republicans who feel the same way.
In comparison, there was a narrower gap in views on racial discrimination based on people’s race, age and level of education. The partisan gap on other issues, like immigration, and the role of government, was also stark.
On the issue of immigration, a growing number of Democrats and Republicans think immigrants “strengthen the country,” but the partisan divide has increased significantly from the first year of Pew’s survey. Between 1994 and 2017, the percentage of Democrats who say immigrants help the nation jumped from 32 percent to 84 percent.
Among Republicans, the percentage who view immigrants favorably also increased, but more slowly, from 30 percent two decades ago to 42 percent today. Republicans are also much more likely than Democrats to hold the view that immigrants are a “burden” on the country, the study found.
Pew spoke to 5,009 people in surveys conducted on June 8-18 and June 27-July 9, 2017. The study’s margin of error is 1.6 points.
Attitudes about the size and role of government also show a sharper political divide than that which existed in the past. Today, 63 percent of Republicans and people who lean Republican think regulations for businesses “usually do more harm than good,” compared to 30 percent of Democrats and those who lean Democratic. That 33-point gap is up from an 18-point difference in 1994.
Similarly, 69 percent of Republicans believe the government “can’t afford to do much more to help the needy,” up from 58 percent two decades ago. Democrats have shifted in the opposite direction. In 1994, 37 percent said the government can’t afford to do more to help struggling Americans; today, the figure has dropped to 24 percent.
At the same time, the growing partisan gap has obscured some differences among Democrats and Republicans.
“While Republicans and Democrats have grown further apart, there are sizable divisions within both parties on many political values,” the study found.
For instance, 62 percent of Republicans and Republican “leaners” aged 18-29 think immigrants strengthen the nation, compared to just 31 percent of Republicans age 65 or older. On the left, the gap is smaller but not insignificant: 94 percent of Democrats and Democratic “leaners” aged 18-29 say immigrants strengthen the U.S., compared to 72 percent of those over 65 years old.
The differences within both parties extend to views on gender discrimination as well. Overall, 55 percent of Americans believe women face “significant obstacles” to get ahead that men do not. But fewer men in both parties held that view than their female counterparts.
Among Republicans, 29 percent of men said that women face greater obstacles, compared to 44 percent of Republican women who felt the same way. Among Democrats, 65 percent of men said women face greater obstacles, compared to 79 percent of women.
In the end, however, the differences within both parties pale in comparison to the political gulf separating Democrats from Republicans.
A growing number of Democrats and Republicans hold more negative views of the opposite party than they did in the past. Forty-four percent of Democrats have a “very unfavorable” view of the Republican Party today, up from just 16 percent in 1994. The number of Republicans who hold a “very unfavorable” view of the Democratic Party has risen from 17 percent two decades ago to 45 percent now.
“Republicans and Democrats have long had negative opinions of the other party,” the study noted, but the degree of dislike was less extreme. “This is no longer the case.”
Daniel Bush is PBS NewsHour's Senior Political Reporter.
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