A Pew Research study finds that America has never been more polarized, and more than ever, it’s politics, not race or class, that divides us.
The study, which looks at trends in American values-based beliefs from 1987 through 2012 finds that the “values gap” between Republicans and Democrats has never been wider. As the poll’s top-line memo states: “Republicans are most distinguished by their increasingly minimalist views about the role of government and lack of support for environmentalism. Democrats have become more socially liberal and secular. Republicans and Democrats are most similar in their level of political engagement.”
Among the key findings:
- The average partisan gap on values issues has doubled from 1987 to 2012, from 10 percent to 18 percent.
- Nearly all of the increases have taken place during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies, and during both terms, the base of the respective parties have criticized their party for not standing up for traditional partisan beliefs. According to the poll, in the current survey, 71 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats say their parties have done a poor job standing up for their traditional beliefs.
- Over the last 25 years, both parties have become smaller, and more “ideologically homogeneous.” Among Republicans, conservatives now outnumber moderates by two-two one, and among Democrats, there are now just as many liberals as moderates.
- Gender, race, ethnic, religious and class divisions on values have remained stable. and while there are differences between the value systems of the highly religious and the less religious, and between the more and less educated, those differences “pale in comparison to the overwhelming partisan divide we see today.
- While there are more political “independents” than ever, most independents actually lean toward one or the other political party, and when those independents are included, the “values gap” is just as wide as when they are left out.
- Republicans have shifted sharply toward a belief in a limited role for government, and Republicans have turned increasingly against the idea of a social safety net, and the concept that the government should help those who cannot care for themselves. Republicans have also become more anti-immigration over time.
- Democrats increasingly believe that society should work to assist minorities, while Republicans have remained as opposed today as they were in the 1980s, leading to a wider gap between the two parties on the question of racial preferences.
From the poll writeup by Pew researcher Andrew Kohut:
Republicans and Democrats are furthest apart in their opinions about the social safety net. There are partisan differences of 35 points or more in opinions about the government’s responsibility to care for the poor, whether the government should help more needy people if it means adding to the debt and whether the government should guarantee all citizens enough to eat and a place to sleep.
On all three measures, the percentage of Republicans asserting a government responsibility to aid the poor has fallen in recent years to 25-year lows.
Just 40 percent of Republicans agree that “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves,” down 18 points since 2007. In three surveys during the George W. Bush administration, no fewer than half of Republicans said the government had a responsibility to care for those unable to care for themselves. In 1987, during the Ronald Reagan’s second term, 62 percent expressed this view.
Over the past two decades, the public consensus in favor of tougher environmental restrictions has weakened, also primarily because of changing opinions among Republicans.
For the first time in a Pew Research Center political values survey, only about half of Republicans (47 percent) agree that “there needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.” This represents a decline of 17 points since 2009 and a fall of nearly 40 points, from 86 percent, since 1992.
The partisan gap over this measure was modest two decades ago. Today, roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans say stricter environmental laws and regulations are needed (93 percent vs. 47 percent).
At the same time the poll finds that Democrats have shifted in their values too, though less dramatically than Republicans. Today, the number of Democrats who say the “never doubt the existence of God” has fallen 11 points in a decade, to 77 percent (76 percent for independents) and the percentage of white Democrats who express no doubt on God’s existence has declined 17 percent, to 68 percent.
Democrats have also shifted to become more favorable toward immigration, and toward alternatives to traditional marriage. Today, just 6 in 10 Democrats say they have “old fashioned values about family and marriage,” down from 70 percent in 2007 and from 86 percent in 1987. For Republicans, that number is closer to 9 in 10, with 88 percent of respondents professing old fashioned values about marriage.
On the question of “doing whatever is necessary to improve the position of minorities,” including support for race-based preferences, just over half of Democrats are in support (52 percent), which is an 11 percent increase just since 2007 in those who say “we should make every effort to improve the position of blacks and other minorities, even if it means giving them preferential treatment.” For Republicans, just 12 percent agree with that statement, a stable percentage over time, which means the gap between Republicans and Democrats on the issue of racial preferences has grown from 18 percentage points in 1987, to 40 points today.
How the numbers affect the political divide
When it comes to the 2012 election, the Pew survey finds that swing voters are closer to Obama voters on the question of whether labor unions have too much power, and they and Obama voters share a smaller tendency than Romney voters to say they “admire rich people” (just 22 percent of Obama voters and swing voters have admiration for the rich, versus 38 percent of Romney voters.) And while 62 percent of Obama voters believe government should help the needy, even if it means more debt, swing voters are closer to Romney voters on this question, with just 27 percent of swing voters and 19 percent of Romney voters agreeing with that statement.
When it comes to helping the needy, 72 percent of Obama voters believe it is the government’s responsibility to take care of those who can’t help themselves, versus 48 percent of swing voters and just 41 percent of Romney voters, while on the question of whether society should make every effort to improve the condition of minorities, 49 percent of Obama voters agree, versus just 23 percent of swing voters and just 9 percent of those saying they are certain to vote for Mitt Romney.
Lastly, majorities across the political spectrum believe there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few companies, according to the survey, but that belief is held by 89 percent of Obama voters, 75 percent of swing voeters, and a smaller 60 percent of Romney voters. Romney voters much more likely to believe that government regulation of business “does more harm than good” — 85 percent versus 56 percent of swing voters and just 32 percent of Obama voters, and 91 percent of Romney voters are concerned that government has become too involved in healthcare, versus 64 percent of swing voters and just 29 percent of Obama voters.
The racial divide unchanged
While the partisan gap is widening, the Pew survey found that values differences between Americans of different ages, education levels, incomes and races haven’t changed much since 1987.
Racial differences remain, particularly on issues of the role of government, but the gap between blacks, whites and Hispanics has remained stable over the decades, with African-Americans and Hispanics consistently remaining more confident in the government’s ability to solve problems, and believing more strongly in the social safety net, and a larger role of government than whites.
In the survey, 62 percent of black respondents agreed with the statement, “we should make every possible effort to improve the position of blacks and other minorities, even if it means giving them preferential treatment,” versus just 22 percent of whites. In 1987, the gap was 64 percent versus 16 percent, a minor change.
And while 78 percent of blacks say the government “should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep” — a figure just 2 percent below where it was 25 years ago, only 52 percent of whites agree, down from 58 percent in 1987.
The survey also found:
- Half of blacks and 31 percent of whites say success in life is “determined by forces outside our control,” almost identical to the 49 percent of blacks and 35 percent of whites who said so in 1987.
- Blacks and whites largely agree that poor people are too dependent on government help, with 72 percent of whites and 70 percent of whites holding this view, and the gap between the two groups has changed little over time.
- The share of African-Americans who believe in the importance of prayer and who have never doubted the existence of God is “far higher than among whites,” according to the survey.
- The percentage of blacks who support gay marriage has grown, but blacks are still less likely than whites to support same-sex unions: 39 percent versus 47 percent of whites.)
And the percentage of black and white respondents who said they have “old fashioned values about marriage and family” is nearly identical (69 percent of blacks and 72 percent of whites) — and blacks are more likely to say women should “return to their traditional role in society.” Still, the gaps between races on these issues has remained virtually unchanged in 25 years, while the partisan divide has grown substantially.