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There’s A Huge Gap In How Republicans And Democrats See Discrimination

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.

Who faces discrimination?

Percentage of respondents who said each group experiences “a great deal” or “a lot” of discrimination, by party identification

Group All Democrats Republicans Gap
Blacks 61.2% 77.5% 45.4% D+32.1
Muslims 57.5 70.0 48.2 D+21.8
Women 37.8 47.8 27.7 D+20.1
Jews 34.4 36.1 34.7 D+1.4
Men 15.8 12.9 18.5 R+5.6
Whites 18.0 11.8 25.3 R+13.5
Christians 22.7 15.9 32.5 R+16.6

Survey conducted from May 28 to June 3. “Democrats” and “Republicans” refer to self-identified Democrats and self-identified Republicans.

Source: Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape

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.

[Related: Republicans And Democrats Increasingly Agree On The Protests … But Not Why People Are Protesting]

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.

(Un)favorability is partisan

Percentage of respondents who have a unfavorable impression of each group, by party identification

Group All Democrats Republicans Gap
Evangelicals 31.1% 43.1% 19.9% D+23.1
The police 35.7 45.8 25.2 D+20.6
Whites 18.2 22.5 13.1 D+9.5
Jews 12.2 11.6 12.4 R+0.8
Asians 13.4 12.1 16.7 R+4.6
Latinos 13.7 10.5 17.9 R+7.4
Blacks 16.8 12.6 22.2 R+9.6
LGBT 23.5 15.5 33.7 R+18.1
Muslims 26.8 17.1 41.9 R+24.8
Undocumented immigrants 42.4 27.8 64.6 R+36.8

Survey conducted from May 28 to June 3. “Democrats” and “Republicans” refer to self-identified Democrats and self-identified Republicans.

Source: Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape

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

More of the younger Republicans see discrimination

Percentage of respondents who said each group experiences “a great deal” or “a lot” of discrimination, by age category

Group All Republicans Under 45 45 and older Diff
Blacks 45.4% 56.2% 37.8% -18.4
Women 27.7 35.8 22.0 -13.8
Men 18.5 26.3 12.8 -13.5
Whites 25.3 32.8 19.9 -13.0
Muslims 48.2 55.8 42.8 -13.0
Christians 32.5 37.7 28.7 -9.0
Jews 34.7 36.7 33.3 -3.5

Survey conducted from May 28 to June 3.

Source: Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape

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.

[Related: Do You Know How Divided White And Black Americans Are On Racism?]

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.


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Footnotes

  1. We looked at differences between self-identified Democrats and Republicans. We included those who identified strongly with their party, as well as those who leaned toward one party or said their identification with their party is “weak.”

  2. Surveys administered in May, before Floyd’s death and the renewed attention to issues of policing in minority communities, showed that 74 percent of Democrats thought black Americans faced high levels of discrimination, compared to 34 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of Americans overall. Those numbers are now up to 78 percent for Democrats, 45 percent for Republicans and 61 percent for Americans overall. There has not been much of an increase in perceptions of discrimination for other groups, such as Muslims.

  3. We analyzed the data for all of the groups where Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape asked about perceptions of discriminination. They did not ask respondents if Hispanics faced a lot of discrimination.

  4. We combined respondents who identify groups as “very” and “somewhat” favorable into one group, and “very” and “somewhat” unfavorable into a second group.

  5. According to our analysis of Nationscape surveys administered from April 30 through May 20, just 30 percent of Democrats had unfavorable views of the police.

  6. About 60 percent of Democratic-leaning people are non-Hispanic white.

  7. Surveys administered from April 30 to May 20 showed that just 14 percent of Republicans had unfavorable views of the police, but in the most recent survey, 25 percent of Republicans had unfavorable views of the police.

  8. An analysis of polls from April 30 to May 20 showed that 45 percent of Republicans under age 45 thought black people faced high levels of discrimination, a number that rose to 56 percent in the latest survey. Among Republicans over 45, the percentage went from 26 to 38.

  9. According to the analysis of polls from May 28 to June 3, 74 percent of Republicans over 45 had unfavorable views of undocumented immigrants, compared to 51 percent of Republicans under 45; 47 percent of Republicans over 45 had unfavorable views of Muslims, compared to 35 percent of Republicans under 45.

  10. The survey asks respondents to indicate how favorably they view Latinos, not Hispanics, as a group

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of political science at California State University.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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