December 17, 2019

In a Politically Polarized Era, Sharp Divides in Both Partisan Coalitions

Partisanship remains biggest factor in public's political values

Partisanship continues to be the dividing line in the American public’s political attitudes, far surpassing differences by age, race and ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, religious affiliation or other factors. Yet there are substantial divisions within both parties on fundamental political values, views of current issues and the severity of the problems facing the nation.

Wide partisan gaps on political values across a number of areas, but the largest differences are on guns and race

The issues that divide the partisan coalitions are different for Republicans than for Democrats. Age differences are generally wider among Republicans than Democrats – particularly in opinions about foreign policy, immigration and homosexuality – while educational attainment is a bigger divider among Democrats.

Democrats also are divided by race, with black Democrats much more likely than white Democrats to associate belief in God with morality and less likely to say that same-sex marriage has been good for society. Racial differences in attitudes are far less consequential for Republicans, who are predominantly non-Hispanic white.

Ideological differences are evident in both parties. Conservative Republicans, who make up a majority of all Republicans, are nearly 30 percentage points less likely than GOP moderates and liberals to say that legalizing same-sex marriage has been good for society. And among Democrats and Democratic leaners, there are notable differences between liberals (who make up around half of all Democrats) and the party’s conservatives and moderates on religion, same-sex marriage, racial discrimination and foreign policy.

Partisan gaps dwarf race, education, other differences in political valuesYet it remains the case that the differences between the two parties are starker than those within the two parties. Across 30 political values – encompassing attitudes about guns, race, immigration, foreign policy and other realms – the average partisan gap is 39 percentage points.

The gaps are substantially wider on some political values, especially those related to guns and race, than others. For two political values on whether guns should be generally more or less available (not specific gun policies), the average difference is 57 percentage points. An overwhelming share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (86%) say the nation’s gun laws should be stricter than they are today; just 31% of Republicans and Republican leaners say the same.

The partisan differences on political values related to race are nearly as wide (55 points). For example, Democrats are seven times as likely as Republicans to say white people benefit “a great deal” from societal advantages that black people do not have (49% vs. 7%).

Across all 30 political values, the differences between Republicans and Democrats dwarf all other differences by demographics or other factors. The 39-point average gap is more than twice the difference between white and nonwhite adults (17 percentage points); people who regularly attend religious services and those who do not (14 points); college graduates and those who have not completed college (10 points); younger and older adults (also 10 points); and men and women (6 points).

The size of the partisan divide on political values has not changed much in recent years. But since 1994, the differences between parties on these measures has more than doubled, while the size of other gaps has been largely unchanged.

The current survey, conducted Sept. 3-15 among 9,895 U.S. adults, is the first time Pew Research Center’s political values survey has been conducted on the online American Trends Panel; previous values surveys have been conducted by telephone. (For more, see “Trends are a cornerstone of public opinion research. How do we maintain them when there’s a shift in survey mode?”)

The GOP’s age gap

Across multiple measures, Republicans who are under age 50 have different views from those 50 and older. Age divides among Democrats are much more modest.A chart shows that younger and older Republicans differ on foreign policy, immigration, largely agree on race and guns

A majority of younger Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (65%) say peace is best ensured with good diplomacy. Among older Republicans and Republican leaners, 42% express this view, while a majority (57%) says peace is best ensured through military strength.

The age differences are about as large in opinions about the impact of newcomers from other countries, whether stricter environmental laws are worth the cost and whether legalizing same-sex marriage has been a good thing for the United States.

The Republicans’ age (and generational) differences extend beyond the items shown here: Younger Republicans are more likely than older Republicans to say that human activity contributes a great deal to climate change and that marijuana use should be legal.

And in some instances, these differences also are seen in perceptions of the major problems facing the country. A substantial majority of Republicans ages 50 and older (80%) say illegal immigration is a “very big problem” facing the U.S.; that compares with only about half (51%) of younger Republicans.

Yet there also are important areas of agreement between younger and older Republicans. Relatively small shares of both Republicans younger than 50 (30%) and those ages 50 and older (25%) say white people benefit from societal advantages that black people do not have. Among other areas of agreement, only about one-in-five younger and older Republicans say it is more important to control gun ownership than protect gun rights.

Today, about as many Republicans and Republican leaners are under age 50 (48%) as ages 50 and older (52%). Adults under age 50 make up a majority (54%) of Democrats and Democratic leaners. For Pew Research Center’s most recent analysis of the demographic profiles of the parties and trends in partisan identification among registered voters, released in 2018, see “Wide Gender Gap, Growing Educational Divide in Voters’ Party Identification.”

Racial, educational divisions among Democrats

A chart shows that black and white Democrats diverge sharply on whether belief in God is necessary for morality Black Democrats have long been more likely than white Democrats to describe themselves as Christian and to attend religious services more frequently.

These differences are reflected in sharp divides between black and white Democrats and Democratic leaners in opinions related to faith and religion. White Democrats are nearly twice as likely as black Democrats to say that it is not necessary to believe in God in order for a person to be moral (89% vs. 44%).

On this measure, the views of black Democrats are similar to those of Republicans. Among all Republicans and Republican leaners, 53% say belief in God is not necessary for morality, while 46% say it is necessary.

There also are wide differences between black and white Democrats in views of the impact of legalizing same-sex marriage on the country. While an overwhelming share of white Democrats (88%) say same-sex marriage being legal is a good thing for society, only about half of black Democrats (52%) say the same.

There are significant, though less pronounced, racial differences in Democrats’ attitudes about other issues, including the environment and business profits. And while majorities of black and white Democrats say the country has not gone far enough in giving blacks equal rights with whites, black Democrats are more likely to express this view (81% vs. 65%).

The racial differences among Democrats also are reflected in their views of some problems facing the country. While 58% of black Democrats say terrorism is a very big problem in the U.S., just a quarter of white Democrats say this. The gap is about as wide in views of job opportunities (52% of black Democrats, vs. 25% of white Democrats).

However, black and white Democrats share similar views about many issues, particularly when it comes to the government’s social safety net. For example, nearly identical majorities of black (73%) and white Democrats (72%) say the government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt.

There also are some significant differences between Democrats with four-year college degrees and those with less educational attainment. Most of these differences are evident even when race is held constant.

A chart shows that Democratic college grads more likely than non-college Democrats to view government performance positivelyAcross the 30 political values items, the differences between college graduates and adults who have not completed college are generally wider among Democrats than among Republicans.

Perhaps the most striking educational gap among Democrats is in assessments of government performance.

Among Democrats and Democratic leaners who have four-year degrees, 66% say government often does a better job than it gets credit for, while 32% say it “is almost always wasteful and inefficient.” Non-college Democrats are more skeptical: 43% say government does a better job than it is credited for, while a 54% majority says it is often wasteful.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats, regardless of educational attainment, to say that government is usually wasteful (68% say this) and there are more modest differences by education among Republicans than Democrats.

Democratic college graduates also are more likely than non-college Democrats to say the U.S. should take an active role in world affairs (by 21 percentage points), that newcomers to the U.S. do more strengthen than burden the country (by 17 points) and that gun laws should be made stricter (by 14 points).

A majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners (63%) do not have a four-year college degree, while 37% are college graduates. That is a sharply different educational profile from 20 years earlier, when college graduates made up only 22% of Democrats. Currently, about a quarter of Republicans and Republican leaners (27%) have four-year college degrees, which is virtually unchanged from 1999 (26%).

Income divides within both parties, but on different issues

A chart shows that Republican income divides on business, govt. safety net; Democrats differ on govt. performance The most striking income difference among Republicans is over corporate profits. A 59% majority of Republicans and Republican leaners with family incomes of less than $50,000 say business corporations make too much profit. Fewer than half of Republicans (41%) with higher incomes ($50,000 or more) say the same.

Lower-income Republicans also are more likely than those with higher family incomes to support more government assistance for needy people and to say the government has a responsibility to provide health coverage to all Americans.

Democrats, regardless of family income, hold similar attitudes about business profits and the government safety net. Yet higher-income Democrats express more positive views of government performance than do those with family incomes less than $50,000. These differences mirror educational differences among Democrats.

Other important findings

Majority of public says U.S. corporations have “too much power.” Nearly three-quarters of Americans (73%) say major corporations in the U.S. have too much power; just 22% say they have the right amount of power, while only 4% say they have too little power. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to view corporate power as excessive; still, majorities in both parties express this view (83% of Democrats and Democratic leaners, 62% of Republicans and Republican leaners).

Growing share of Democrats, but not Republicans, say it’s harder for women to advance. Majorities of Democratic women (83%) and men (69%) say significant obstacles continue to make it harder for women than men to get ahead. The shares of both Democratic women and men who say this have increased by 9 percentage points since 2016. By contrast, half of Republican women and just 18% of Republican men say obstacles still block women’s progress. There has been virtually no change in opinions among Republican women since 2016, while the share of Republican men who say obstacles hinder women’s progress has ticked down (from 23% then to 18% today).

Most Americans want the U.S. to maintain its position as sole global superpower. A majority of Americans (61%) say U.S. policies should try to keep it so the country is the only military superpower, while 36% say it would be acceptable if another country became as militarily powerful as the U.S. Partisanship is a factor in these views, with Democrats twice as likely as Republicans to say it would be acceptable if another country becomes as militarily powerful as the U.S. (46% vs. 23%). There also are sizable age differences: Nearly half of adults younger than 30 (48%) say it would be acceptable if another country becomes as militarily powerful, compared with 28% of adults ages 50 and older.

Majority favors raising tax rates on high incomes. A majority of the public (58%) says tax rates on household income over $250,000 should be raised a little or a lot, while 16% say rates on high incomes should be lowered a little or a lot; 22% say they should be kept the same as they are now. Across most partisan and income categories, there is more support for raising than lowering tax rates on high incomes; the only exception are Republicans with family incomes of $100,000 or more, whose views are divided.