The fundamental partisan divide in America?

So, I was on a radio show in Canada this morning and a super-authoritarian Trump supporter called in and among other aspects of his rant, referred to the “monkey in the White House.”  Yowza.  Then again, cannot say I was that surprised from a Trump supporter.  It did, though, get me thinking about race and American political parties.  Now, I’ve done plenty of posts that show the huge divide between the parties on issues of race and white ethnocentrism, and the huge animating feature of race in the Tea Party especially, but obviously, the divide is more than that.  I started thinking maybe it is just the “tolerance/acceptance of ‘others'” divide, or that Democrats are much more inclusive in who they are willing to define as us.  Either way, there’s something going on here.

How nice then, just a few hours after having these thoughts to come across this new piece from Peter Beinart that essentially argues we have an “anti-bigotry” divide.  In this case, Beinart argues that it positions Democrats especially well for the 2016 election, but here’s the basic point:

Republican leaders may not be bigots. But they often tolerate bigotry

It was not inevitable that anti-bigotry would become a partisan dividing line. In 1964, a majority of both House Democrats and House Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act. (Republicans by a slightly higher margin.) In the mid-1990s, leading Democrats and Republicans both opposed gay marriage. In 2000, George W. Bush spoke out against the fact that Arab Americans were being “racially profiled.” As recently as 2008, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama demonized Mexican immigrants…

What’s changed? The divergence began when Democratic presidents signed civil-rights legislation in the 1960s and Republicans responded by taking the white South. As a result, African Americans became a key Democratic voting bloc while the GOP remained overwhelmingly white. There’s some evidence that, in the years prior to Obama’s election, this racial polarization was easing, with younger African Americans showing less loyalty to the Democratic Party and Bill Clinton winning a significant chunk of the white South. But as UCLA political scientists Michael Tesler and David O. Sears have documented, Obama’s election supercharged the party’s racial identities. Since 2004, Americans who exhibit higher levels of “racial resentment” have moved toward the GOP and those who exhibit lower levels have moved toward the Democrats.

This heightened partisan polarization around race has served as a template for the way the two parties respond to Muslims and Mexican Americans. Just as Democrats are more likely than Republicans to consider anti-black racism a problem, they’re also more likely to worry about bigotry against Muslims. Republicans, by contrast, are more likely to dismiss the grievances of both groups as “political correctness.”

The Obama polarization has also shaped the way the parties have responded to Latino immigration. Since the 1990s, political scientists have observed that hostility to African Americans correlates with hostility toward immigrants. And as Mexican immigration has become a bigger political issue, views of Latino immigrants have divided the two parties in the roughly the same way that views of African Americans do. The Democratic Party, which once had a robust anti-immigration wing, is now so dependent on Latino votes that Hillary Clinton in March pledged to halt virtually all deportations of undocumented immigrants. Trump, by contrast, has called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” thus transposing hoary white fears of black sexual violence onto Latinos.

Never before in modern American history have the political parties been as polarized along racial lines as they are right now. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee responded to Black Lives Matter protesters by changing her platform to accommodate them. The presumptive Republican nominee responded to Black Lives Matter protesters by congratulating his supporters forassaulting them. This level of polarization may be dangerous for the country. But it means that, as Trump leaves the GOP cocoon and begins foraging for Democratic votes, he will face a dramatically more hostile environment. Obama helped create today’s Republican Party, a party open to Trump’s bigoted appeals. But Obama has also helped create today’s Democratic Party, a party more deeply anti-racist than any in American history.

Today’s Democratic Party is built on mobilizing African Americans, Latinos, and those white Americans who identify with their political views. It’s built on leveraging voters who consider bigotry a powerful, living force in American life. It’s a flawed party in many ways. But, thankfully, it’s a party built to defeat Donald Trump.

It’s a real shame that this has become a dividing line in American politics, but it seems a pretty inescapable conclusion that it is where we are.  Longer term, one of the important questions is to what degree those who are anti-bigotry yet with economically-minded conservative views (an eminently defensible position, of course) are willing to win on the back of increasingly transparent racial appeals.  Actually, shorter term, too, because they now have an important decision to make about Trump.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

8 Responses to The fundamental partisan divide in America?

  1. rgbact says:

    Given I had two straight lefties come after me for daring to use the term “black voter”….theres no doubt modern Democrats are hyper sensitive about race

    The interesting thing about this election is whether the Democrats will finally be able to turn Hispanics and Asians into the solid Democrat voting blocks that blacks have become, on the strength of Trump polarization. As for your final point, I’m in NeverTrump, and I don’t expect many people will change. I’m OK with accepting the votes of racists, but having them lead the party is a bridge too far, especially when they’re fairly liberal on most issues.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Good points. I would say, it’s not “Black voter” but a pervasive pattern of usage in a particular context :-).

      • Jon K says:

        I agree. 100%. I wasn’t trying to call you a racist. Word choice, like it or not, can convey a subtext you may not intend to convey.

        Dr Greene can back me up that I am about as anti pc and anti word/thought police as one can get. I’ve probably sent him 2 dozen emails on the subject.

        And you can keep calling me a leftist all you want if it makes you feel better.

        If being conservative means that I have to support the GOP as it currently exists then I guess that I have gone from bleeding heart libertarian to leftist in about 6 months. Kinda blows a huge hole in that whole social identity theory doesn’t it?

  2. ohwilleke says:

    Anti-bigotry is an existential issue for a lot of the Democratic base. If you are non-white, non-Christian, not straight, non-Anglo or a woman your right to be a political and civi person is at stake, and so you end up with paradoxical situations so that even socially and economically conservative Muslim immigrants who can pass as white feel a critical need to side with the Democratic party with which they disagree on most issues, because their survival against genocidal threats has to take priority over everything else.

    Clinton won the primaries, in great part, by convincing threatened communities that she had the back, while Sanders tried to broaden the base by de-emphasizing identity politics and focusing on economic issues defined in an identity-blind manner that merely happens to benefit lots of Democratic constituencies. This difference in emphasis that make Sanders more attractive with white Democrats and independents is also what has hurt him with the Democratic base that is very anxious about their threatened community being squashed. Clinton’s more identity oriented conceptualization reassures the threatened communities at the cost of turning off conservatives and moderates who don’t like an identity politics conceptualization of the agenda.

    • Steve Greene says:

      As you know, though a big fan of anti-bigotry, I’m not a big fan of identity politics. Personally, this upper-middle class liberal white voter prefers Hillary because I see her as more politically skilled and a super-serious policy wonk.

      • ohwilleke says:

        Your reasons aren’t the reasons that got Clinton a larger share of the African American vote in the primaries than Obama did.

  3. Steve Greene says:

    I am, of course, aware of that.

  4. R. Jenrette says:

    In this vein, it seems to me that Clinton sees groups but she also can go to individuals and connect on that level. It looks to me like Bernie just sees The People, not the real and complex lives of individuals.
    I can’t see him giving a presidential speech as Consoler In Chief.

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