Americans most divided on almost everything in more than 20 years

October 5, 2017 9:00pm

•  No agreement, even on basics, between Republicans and Democrats

•  In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger

The “Fairness Doctrine,” which was a government regulation on radio and TV stations to make sure they presented all sides on an issue, was pitched in 1987 when Ronald Reagan was president. Since then,, the voices heard over the air and on cable have become ever more strident and unbalanced by opposing views.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, new research by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center shows Americans are more politically divided than at any time since it began measuring the question more than 20 years ago.

Essentially, the new research shows, there’s no agreement on anything and differences are getting wider.

The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values – on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas – moved to record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger, Pew says.

And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.

The new study by Pew Research Center, based on surveys of more than 5,000 adults conducted over the summer, finds widening differences between Republicans and Democrats on a range of measures the Center has been asking about since 1994, as well as those with more recent trends.

But in recent years, the gaps on several sets of political values in particular – including measures of attitudes about the social safety net, race and immigration – have increased dramatically.


Government aid to needy

Over the past six years, the share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents saying the government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt, has risen 17 percentage points (from 54 percent to 71 percent), while the views of Republicans and Republican leaners have barely changed (25 percent then, 24 percent today). However, Republicans’ opinions on this issue had shifted substantially between 2007 and 2011, with the share favoring more aid to the needy falling 20 points (from 45 percent to 25 percent).

The result, says Pew, is this: While there has been a consistent party gap since 1994 on government aid to the poor, the divisions have never been this large. In 2011, about twice as many Democrats as Republicans said the government should do more for the needy (54 percent vs. 25 percent). Today, nearly three times as many Democrats as Republicans say this (71 percent vs. 24 percent).

Racial discrimination

In recent years, Democrats’ views on racial discrimination also have changed, driving an overall shift in public opinion. Currently, 41 percent of Americans say racial discrimination is the main reason many blacks cannot get ahead – the largest share expressing this view in surveys dating back 23 years. Still, somewhat more Americans (49 percent) say blacks who cannot get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.

When the racial discrimination question was first asked in 1994, the partisan difference was 13 points. By 2009, it was only somewhat larger (19 points). But today, the gap in opinions between Republicans and Democrats about racial discrimination and black advancement has increased to 50 points.

Immigration Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) say immigrants strengthen the country “because of their hard work and talents.” Just 26 percent say immigrants are a burden “because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” Views of immigrants, though little changed from a year ago, are more positive than at any point in the past two decades.

As with views of racial discrimination, there has been a major shift in Democrats’ opinions about immigrants. The share of Democrats who say immigrants strengthen the country has increased from 32 percent in 1994 to 84 percent today. By contrast, Republicans are divided in attitudes about immigrants: 42 percent say they strengthen the country, while 44 percent view them as a burden. In 1994, 30 percent of Republicans said immigrants strengthened the country, while 64 percent said they were a burden.

“Peace through strength”

About six-in-ten Americans (61 percent) say good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace, while 30 percent say peace is ensured by military strength. Opinions in both parties have changed since the 1990s; Democrats increasingly say peace is ensured by good diplomacy, while Republicans say it is military strength that ensures peace. Today, 83 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners see good diplomacy as the way to ensure peace, compared with just 33 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners.

Methodology notes

The surveys were conducted June 8-18 among 2,504 adults and June 27-July 9 among 2,505 adults, with a follow-up survey conducted August 15-21 among 1,893 respondents. The report was made possible by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which received support for the surveys from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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