Democrats and Republicans have very different views about how much discrimination various demographic groups face in American society. That disagreement underlies virtually everything happening in American politics today, from the discussions about race and policing in the wake of George’s Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police to the 2020 presidential election.
We wrote about these differing perceptions near the start of President Trump’s term in 2017. Those perceptions have not changed that much, but we felt like these questions of discrimination are more relevant than ever, with Trump running for a second term and the country rethinking its racial policies in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Here are some recent findings about perceptions of discrimination and perceptions of various groups in American society, based on recent polling from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project.1 The survey we relied on was administered after Floyd’s death, from May 28 to June 3, but previous sets of polls from Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape had similar results — except for shifts in responses to questions about black people and policing, as we explain below.
Perceptions of discrimination differ across party
An overwhelming majority of Democrats thought black and Muslim Americans face “a great deal” or “a lot” of discrimination in America today, as opposed to “a moderate amount,” “little” or “none at all.” Perceptions of discrimination against black people have surged among all groups, including Republicans, in the wake of Floyd’s death. But the vast majority of Democrats thought that black people in America faced high levels of discrimination even before Floyd’s death.2 About half of Democrats also thought women face a lot of discrimination.3
Very few Democrats thought that Christians, men or white people face high levels of discrimination in America.
In contrast, only about half of Republicans thought that black people and Muslims face high levels of discrimination, and only about a quarter thought that women do. The majority of Republicans thought those groups face “a moderate amount,” “little” or “no” discrimination at all.
Generally, Republicans were less inclined to say that any group in America faces high levels of discrimination, at least according to this polling. But significantly more Republicans than Democrats thought there is discrimination against Christians and white people.
These views of discrimination line up closely with partisanship, among both voters and elected officials. Among voters, black Americans, Muslims and women are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates; Christians, men and white Americans are more likely to vote for Republicans.
At the political elite level, former President Obama’s administration took a number of steps to reverse discrimination against black Americans and women. The Trump administration reversed some of the Obama policies aimed at blacks in particular, while adopting policies that the administration said created a more level playing field for Christians, men and native-born Americans, who are more likely than immigrants to be white.
There are similar numbers of people in both parties who thought that Jewish Americans face high levels of discrimination. What explains that? Well, Jewish Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. But Trump has cast himself as a defender of Jewish people in America and particularly in Israel, which may explain why a lot of Republicans also viewed Jewish Americans as facing high levels of discrimination.
In other words, it’s likely that voters would see discrimination through partisan lenses anyway, but decisions by leading politicians are probably reinforcing those dynamics. In fact, partisans shift their support on policies to align with their party’s leaders, and not the other way around.
There are partisan gaps in favorability
To get another assessment of feelings about different groups and how partisanship might shape those feelings, we looked at measures of favorability, where people are asked, “Do you have a very or somewhat favorable or very or somewhat unfavorable view of group X?”4 Although questions about group favorability are fraught because of “social desirability bias” — basically, even if someone feels intensely negative feelings towards, say, black or white people, they might not admit it to a pollster — we can still learn something by analyzing responses. We focused here on “very” and “somewhat” unfavorable views because we are assuming you must really dislike a group to admit this on a survey.
Nearly half of Democrats expressed unfavorable views about police and evangelicals. Unfavorable views of the police have substantially increased from polling before Floyd’s death,5 but Democrats’ unfavorable views of evangelicals were already very high and remain so. About a quarter of Democrats said they had unfavorable views of white Americans; a quarter said the same of undocumented immigrants,6 even though the Democratic Party is increasingly supportive of immigration and immigrants.
In contrast, large shares of Republicans expressed unfavorable views of undocumented immigrants, LGBT Americans and Muslims. More than 20 percent of Republicans said that they had unfavorable views of black Americans and police, with the latter group having increased in unfavorability substantially since Floyd’s death.7
Younger and older Republicans diverge
On both perceptions of discrimination and favorability measures, Americans’ views seem to be shaped more by partisanship than age, race or gender. So, Republicans — men and women — generally see discrimination in similar ways and view the same groups favorably or unfavorably. So do black and white Democrats. A helpful illustration of the partisan dynamics is that a greater share of Democratic men (44 percent) than Republican women (28 percent) thought that women in the U.S. face high levels of discrimination.
But there is a big GOP split on age. Republicans under the age of 45 were more likely to say that they saw high levels of discrimination than those over 45. And that cuts across the traditional divisions — younger Republicans saw more discrimination than older Republicans against blacks (a more Democratic group) and against whites (a more Republican group). In the wake of Floyd’s death, a clear majority of Republicans under 45 thought there was a lot of discrimination in America against black people. The over-45 GOP cohort did not share that view.8
Older Republicans were much more likely than younger Republicans to say that they had negative views of undocumented immigrants and Muslims.9
|Group||All Republicans||Under 45||45 and older||Diff|
There were also some notable differences among Democrats. For example, Democrats under 45 were significantly more likely than those over 45 to say they had an unfavorable view of the police (54 percent compared to 38 percent). Black Democrats were more likely than white Democrats to have unfavorable views of the police (58 percent to 41 percent). Black and Hispanic Democrats were about twice as likely as white Democrats to view LGBT Americans unfavorably, and about 30 percent of both groups expressed unfavorable views of white Americans. And white Democrats, in particular, viewed evangelicals unfavorably (50 percent).
We should be careful not to overstate these identity-based divides. There are plenty of women in the Republican Party. There are plenty of non-religious Republicans. There are plenty of Christian Democrats. Also, it’s not that the two parties are on different planets in terms of perceptions of discrimination — Republicans and Democrats agree that Muslims face more discrimination than Christians, and that black people face more discrimination than white people. Most Republicans and Democrats view Asian, black, Latino10 and white people favorably. (Or at least feel compelled to say so in a survey.)
But this also isn’t a “both sides” situation — Democratic perceptions of discrimination line up more with the evidence than Republican perceptions. No candidate has recently run for president with a plan for banning Christians from entering the U.S. And by most measures, whatever discrimination they might face, Christians, men and white people remain fairly powerful in American society today, certainly more so than black people, Muslims and women.
This data is important because it illustrates a serious identity-based disconnect at the heart of American politics. When social identities are threatened (real or imagined threats, often made salient by group leaders), individuals retreat to the safety of their in-groups, and react defensively with more negative feelings toward outside groups. And given the effectiveness of in-group retreating for political outcomes, there is little chance of this changing anytime soon, at least from political leaders who stand to gain the most from these identity-based fights.
The activation of social identities can have positive democratic outcomes, too. For instance, Trump’s anti-Latino rhetoric led to increased political activity from Latinos with a stronger racial identity. And as we wrote about last week, strong racial identity among black Americans leads to collective voting to defend group interests. Moreover, if a sense of shared identity can be triggered, partisans can come together to prioritize national interests.
But so long as the parties remain largely distinct in terms of the group identities of their members — and how those members feel about other groups — ingroup and outgroup conflict is easily activated.
CORRECTION (June 17, 2020, 3:52 p.m.): An earlier version of a footnote in this article incorrectly said that the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape survey did not ask respondents whether Asians faced discrimination. Respondents were, in fact, asked whether Asians faced discrimination.