The partisan split in America is the highest it has been in two decades, with Republicans and Democrats holding vastly disparate views on race, immigration and the role of government, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.
Pew has been measuring attitudes on policy issues and political values going back to 1994, and its latest check-in finds — perhaps unsurprisingly — that Americans are more divided than ever.
“The fact that Republicans and Democrats differ on these fundamental issues is probably not a surprise, but the magnitude of the difference is striking, and particularly how the differences have grown in recent years and where they’ve grown,” Carroll Doherty, Pew’s director of political research and one of the authors of the study, told NPR.
Pew asked more than 5,000 respondents this summer about 10 specific political issues — including government regulation and aid, same-sex marriage and environmental regulations — and found that, on average, there was a 36-point gap between Republicans and Democrats. That’s a whopping 21-point increase since it began tracking those questions 23 years ago.
Partisanship has risen markedly since 2004, the year President George W. Bush was re-elected, and has hit a new high.
Two decades before, there was about a 15-point gap between Republicans and Democrats on these issues, but it wasn’t that much more pronounced than differences in race or religion.
Now, how you identify politically is — by far — the starkest divider of how Americans see certain issues.
The widest two gaps were in views about race and government aid to the poor. Overall, 41 percent of Americans said that racial discrimination is the reason black people struggle to get ahead, which is the highest mark in the survey’s history; 49 percent, however, still said that African-Americans who couldn’t advance were responsible for their own situation.
But broken down along party lines, there’s a huge 50-point gap between the way Republicans and Democrats see the issue — almost two-thirds (64 percent) of Democrats think some African-Americans struggle to get ahead because of discrimination, while just 14 percent of Republicans think so.
Back in 1994, 39 percent of Democrats thought the same thing — a 25-point uptick — while just a quarter (24 percent) of Republicans thought so, a 12-point drop in the two decades since.
There’s also a 47-point gap between Democrats who believe that government should do more to help the needy (71 percent) and Republicans who agree with that statement (just 24 percent). Democrats’ belief that the government needs to do more to help is up from 58 percent in 1994.
A minority of Republicans have held that belief, and even fewer do today than a decade ago. The percentage saying so has fallen 21 points since 2007.
On immigration, there’s also a wide chasm between the parties — 84 percent of Democrats say immigrants have strengthened the country with their “hard work and talents.”
That’s a 52-point increase since 1994.
But the percentage of Republicans saying immigrants help the country is half that (42 percent). A plurality of Republicans (44 percent) believe immigrants are a burden, but that 42 percent is actually higher than in 1994 for Republicans.
There is evidence of a generational shift among Republicans on social issues, with more support among younger Republicans for immigration and same-sex marriage, for example.
On immigration, 62 percent of Republicans under 30 said immigrants strengthen the country (20 points higher than the GOP overall). Just 31 percent of Republicans 65 and older believed the same thing.
Majorities in both parties also now said that being gay should be accepted by society. But the margin is far wider among Democrats than Republicans — more than 4 in 5 (83 percent) Democrats said so, while just more than half (54 percent) of Republicans agreed. Because Democratic support has exploded, the gap between the two parties has actually gotten wider despite broader acceptance by people in both.
On other issues, like environmental regulations (and whether they have hurt the economy) and use of the military versus noninterventionism, the parties have also moved in very different directions over the past two decades.
As is the case with all the issues Pew tested, Doherty explained that with each party being pulled further into its corner, it has been harder for legislators in Washington to reach any type of middle-ground consensus.
“These gaps on these fundamental values are underlying some of the divisions you see between Democrats and Republicans in Congress when they debate specific issues,” Doherty said.
In other words, for as much as people seem to lament inertia in Washington, part of it is because of public opinion.
Democrats and Republicans have worse views of each other than ever before
The Pew study underscored a deep distaste for the “other side,” too — along with evidence of just how polarized society as a whole has become geographically and socially.
Among both Republicans and Democrats, the share of very unfavorable opinions of the other party has more than doubled in the past 23 years. In 1994, just 16 percent of Democrats said they held very unfavorable opinions of the GOP.
Two decades later, that number has practically tripled — to 44 percent. The numbers are almost identical in how Republicans view Democrats, too — 17 percent in 1994 and now 45 percent.
“Partisans have long held unfavorable views of the other party, but negative opinions are now more widely held and intensely felt than in the past,” the study notes.
Additionally, both parties say they overwhelmingly associate with people who share their same political beliefs — 67 percent of Democrats say a lot of their close friends are also Democrats; 57 percent of Republicans say the same thing. Only 14 percent of Republicans say they have a lot of friends in the opposing party, while just 9 percent of Democrats do.
Differences in where and how we live, too
Two-thirds of Republicans in the survey also said they prefer communities where they can have more space, land and a bigger house, while 61 percent of Democrats want a community with smaller houses and walkable amenities.
That tracks with recent trends of Republicans dominating in rural areas and Democrats struggling to make inroads there. Democrats, on the other hand, have strongholds in the cities and dense metropolitan areas.
With gerrymandered House districts, that’s made it easier for Republican-controlled legislatures to pack Democrats into fewer urban districts, making it increasingly necessary for Democrats to make gains in those more rural, conservative areas if they hope to gain significant seats in Congress.
Studies like this highlight just how difficult that will be.