America in 2016: Partisan, Fearful and Angry

An anti-Trump protester (left) and a Trump support clash outside a campaign rally by presumptive GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump in Anaheim, Calif. on May 25, 2016.

An anti-Trump protester (left) and a Trump support clash outside a campaign rally by presumptive GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump in Anaheim, Calif. on May 25, 2016. (David McNew/Getty Images)

July 18, 2016

As Republicans and Democrats begin gathering this week for their national conventions, the partisan divide between both parties is the widest it’s been in at least a quarter century.

That’s according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, which found that for the first time since at least 1992, majorities in both parties hold not just unfavorable views of the other party, but “very unfavorable views.”

According to Pew, 91 percent of Republicans view the Democratic Party unfavorably, with 58 percent holding a “very unfavorable” view of the other party. Among Democrats, 86 percent felt unfavorably toward the GOP, with 55 percent expressing a very unfavorable view.

But voters aren’t just frustrated with members of the opposing side. They’re also fearful of them. More than half of Democrats say the GOP makes them “afraid,” while 49 percent of Republicans say the same about Democrats. Nearly half of all Republicans say Democrats make them feel angry, and vice versa.

In many cases, the study notes, “negative feelings about the opposing party are as powerful — and in many cases more powerful — as are positive feelings about one’s own party.” Across both parties, for example, only about one-in-five voters said they “almost always” agreed with the policies of their party. By comparison, 44 percent of voters, regardless of party, said they “almost never” agree with the opposition.

For more on the findings, we spoke with Carroll Doherty, director of political research at Pew. Here’s a transcript of that conversation, which has been edited in parts for clarity and length.

The depth of the partisan divide that emerges from this survey is pretty sobering. Among Republicans, the 58 percent of voters with a “very unfavorable” view of Democrats was up from 32 percent from the ’08 election. For Democrats, it’s gone from 37 percent to 55 percent. What’s driving this?

Well, a couple of things. First, obviously these percentages are much higher than they’ve ever been in the last 25 years that we’ve been documenting this.

When you get to causes, what we’ve seen over this period is a separation of the partisans, especially highly engaged partisans, on ideological lines. So in other words, they’re further apart ideologically. And so they tend to see the other side as further apart.

So when we ask the follow-up question of these people, “Would you say that the other party — the party that you’ve just described in very unfavorable terms — represents a threat to the nation’s well-being?”, most of those people said yes, they’d go that far. And I think, you know, you get a little bit of a team mentality, of it’s us versus them. It’s my side, its views, versus the other side.

When you say “threat,” what specifically were people afraid of?

I think it’s this idea that their policies are so different and I guess — not to use too strong a word for these really committed partisans — abhorrent. They feel like the policies themselves will threaten the nation.

Certainly, I think if you asked Republicans about the policies of the last eight years, at the very least they would say they’ve done damage to the country, and I think they would say that the policies of Democrats threaten the country. It’s this seismic gap between the two parties, and the idea that the other side not only represents a different point of view, but very much a threatening one.

What are the stereotypes that are out there? How do the two sides describe one another?   

I think that is one of the really interesting findings in the study. Seventy percent of Democrats say Republicans are more close-minded than other Americans. Nothing else came close to that. Dishonest, immoral, unintelligent, lazy — none of those resonated as much with Democrats as the idea that Republicans are close-minded.

In what Republicans said about Democrats, nothing particularly stood out. Fifty-two percent said that Democrats are more close-minded. Forty-seven percent said they’re immoral. Forty-six percent said they’re lazier than other Americans and 45 percent say they’re more dishonest.

When was the last time we’ve seen such deep partisanship? And is there anything unique about what’s going on today?

Well, that’s where we’re limited because of the relatively recent history of public opinion polling. The revival of interest in the early colonial days, you know with the “Hamilton” musical, if you read the history of that era between the Federalists and the Republicans, it was deeply divided, passionate, intense hatred of one side against the other. A lot of dirty tricks and other things.

What we’ve seen in our data is that this has really ramped up in the last 15 to 20 years.

What’s interesting from our perspective on the data is that the 2000 election — and this goes back to an era where you see this partisan animosity at much lower levels than today — people forget that that was pretty much a meh election while it was going on. Certainly not the endgame. But while it was going on, we had relatively high percentages saying that either Bush or Gore would make a good president. The level of partisan animosity was pretty low. It also happened to be a pretty low turnout election. So, in some ways, these things have gone together.

The interest in politics is higher now, in part I think because partisans are saying it really matters. Seventy-four percent in our recent survey said it really matters who wins the presidency. That’s the highest percentage we’ve seen in quite a while. So the stakes are a little bit higher. And I think when the stakes are getting so high, you’re seeing the other side in more negative terms.

So the higher the perceived stakes, the more partisan we become?   

And that’s the other thing about the study that we’ve tried to make clear. People always ask us: Well, how can this be? How can partisanship be such a dominant factor in American politics when the share of independents — self-described independents — it’s all going up? Independents are the fastest growing group. That’s because a lot of these independents are kind of closet partisans and they’re motivated by negative factors even more perhaps, or as much as the partisans themselves. They don’t particularly like the party that they’re loosely affiliated with but they definitely don’t like the other side.

I’m glad you mentioned that since as you point out, there are more Americans today who identify as independent than those who identify as either Democrat or Republican. So in this environment, what does it even mean to be an independent voter anymore?

It mostly means how you feel about the party that you’re closest to. In other words, if you’re a Democratic-leaning independent, you tend to agree, certainly more agree with the Democrats’ policies than the Republicans. But what we’ve seen among these independents is that they don’t have particular fondness for their own side, but they have very, very negative views towards the other side. When we ask them, “what’s the biggest factor why you lean the way you do?” And they say, “Oh, it’s because the other party’s policies are damaging to the country.”

So not truly independent?

Well, no, there is a small share of independents who are. Roughly 6 to 10 or 12 percent of all voters, of the total public. But these people who say that they don’t lean towards a party, they have no particular partisan leaning, are less engaged in politics generally. They’re sort of on the sidelines.

Based on your findings, what do you see for the future of our two main political parties?

That’s a great question, and it does get to the current campaign a little bit. The political scientists would say that we’re overdue for a partisan realignment — we haven’t really had one for quite awhile.

It’s hard to know. This sense of team identity is so powerful in this country today, even with the obvious flaws that people see in their own party, especially Republicans, it’s still a powerful sense of identity. You wonder if that really will change and if there really will be a realignment, because the pull of the parties is still pretty powerful.

Even without a realignment, is there anything to suggest this partisan fever will break? Or is this the reality we’re stuck with for the foreseeable future?

It’s difficult to say. Again, it gets to that realignment question and what happens after the election. Certainly Trump has had, I think you could say, a major impact on how Republicans are seeing themselves. We put out a kind of campaign report tracking a lot of trends, and the vast majority say they will support Donald Trump in the fall. A lot of them, especially those who supported other candidates in the primaries, have a lot of doubts about him, his qualifications to be president, his judgment. But they’re putting aside those doubts and telling us, at least at this point, that they’ll vote for him in the fall.

What happens after the election? Assuming that the partisans go their predicted routes and overwhelmingly support their candidates, their parties’ candidates — which we have no reason to doubt at this point in the campaign — what happens after that? What is the impact of the Trump candidacy on the future of the Republican Party? That’s going to be a major question, win or lose, coming out of this election. It’s hard to know what will happen after that. We know that Republicans, in particular, are divided over certain key issues. There are policy divisions in the Democratic Party, as well.

But when you really game it out and think, what would a third party look like, a meaningful third party, a party that would really have impact — it’s hard to know what that party would look like.

Is there anything from the survey that’s hopeful?

I guess it depends on your expectations. About 3 in 10, or a third in both parties say, yeah it would be harder to get along with a neighbor who’s a member of another party. But they’re not quite ready to say that, oh, it would really be a problem. We have far less than a majority in both parties saying “I couldn’t even tolerate it if a new neighbor was a member of another party.” They’re not that divided.

The other thing we’ve seen is that, especially for the Republicans, having friends in the other party matters. In other words, your views are somewhat less negative, intensely negative, among both Republicans and Democrats, but especially Republicans, if you have a group that’s diverse. And most people do. Most people have friends who are in the other party. This idea that if you have more contact with the other side — there’s a bit of support for that idea being a way to mitigate some of the separation, division.

And yet the data seems to suggest that even if you’re friends with someone from the opposite party, politics might not be the most productive topic of conversation. 

We’ve been told one of the more depressing findings of the study — and it’s an area where Republicans and Democrats agree — is a little cold water on the idea that talking about politics with people you don’t agree with helps the situation. Most people, when they talk about politics with people they disagree with, say they come away feeling that they had less in common than they had politically.

On the other hand, most people also say that just disagreeing about politics doesn’t preclude agreement about other things. In other words, just because I have a conversation, if I’m a Democrat or a Republican, have a conversation with someone from the opposite party, and I come away feeling “Gee, I feel farther apart from that person than even I thought I would be,”– at least it doesn’t preclude you from agreeing about other topics. I don’t know what they’d be … religion, sports, community issues, things like that. At least there’s still the idea that you can agree on other non-political things.

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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