America’s Partisan Divide Grew Wider Than Ever in 2017

October 5, 2017
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

A demonstrator walks with an upside down flag during a 2014 protest in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The partisan divide on some of the nation’s most pressing political issues, including environmental protection, race and immigration, has widened even further under President Donald Trump, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

America’s political divide had already reached record levels during the Obama presidency, but according to Pew, the partisan split between Democrats and Republicans is now the widest its been in more than two decades.

Based on surveys conducted this summer of more than 5,000 adults, the study revealed an increased gap between Republicans and Democrats on 10 questions about “political values” that Pew has asked since 1994. On average, there is now a 36 percentage point difference between the two parties, substantially greater than the 15 percentage point difference first measured in 1994.

This growth was seen sharply on the topic of race. Today, 41 percent of respondents said racial discrimination is the main reason why black people cannot get ahead in life, while 49 percent said that African-Americans who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own situation.

Over the years, this question has revealed an increased gap across party lines. In 1994, the partisan difference was 13 points. In 2009, it was 19 points. Today, the gap has increased to 50 points.

Views on immigration are the most positive that they have been over the last two decades, according to Pew. Almost two-thirds of the public said that immigrants strengthen the country “because of their hard work and talents” while 26 percent said that immigrants are a burden “because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”

Much of that shift has occurred among Democrats. The percentage of Democrats who said that immigrants have strengthened the United States rose from 32 percent in 1994 to 84 percent today. Republicans are more divided. Currently, 42 percent say that immigrants have strengthened the country, as compared to 30 percent in 1994.

On environmental protection, 59 percent of Americans said that environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost while 37 percent said that stricter laws and regulations hurt the economy and cost too many jobs. The growth of this divide was mostly due to shifts among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Ten years ago, 58 percent of Republicans said stricter environmental regulations were worth the cost and 34 percent disagreed. Today, the numbers have flipped: 36 percent of Republicans said that stricter environmental laws are worth the cost while 58 percent believed that they cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.

Americans are also growing much more negative about members of the opposite political party. In 1994, fewer than 20 percent of Americans had a “very unfavorable” view of the opposite party. Today, 44 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents expressed a very unfavorable opinion of the GOP, according to yearly averages of Pew surveys. By comparison, 45 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents held a very unfavorable view of the Democratic Party.

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