Shortly before Donald Trump won the presidency, Pew Research asked Americans whether they thought his election would improve or worsen race relations in the country. A quarter of those who responded said things would improve, fewer than half the percentage that said the same about former president Barack Obama shortly before the 2008 election. Since then, the percentage saying race relations have improved under Trump tanked, with only 8 percent in a new survey indicating their belief that things have improved. Sixty percent of respondents said the opposite: Things have gotten worse thanks to Trump’s election.
It’s easy to see why that perception would exist. The racially loaded language and policies Trump offered on the campaign trail were seen by some as echoing the sort of rhetoric employed by white nationalists and racists. He was excoriated for his response to the violent protests in Charlottesville in August, in which he suggested there was equal validity to the concerns of Nazi sympathizers and those who protested Nazism and racism. A Post-ABC poll released last month found that half the country sees Trump as biased against black people.
Most Americans, Pew found, see race relations as generally bad — to a lesser extent than they did after the Los Angeles riots in 1992 or after the death of Michael Brown in 2014, but more so than in the most recent years.
Despite that grim assessment, though, the divide between white and black wasn’t the divide that was most obvious to Americans. There was one divide that more than half the country described as being a “very strong” conflict: the divide between Democrats and Republicans.
The partisan divide was described as very strong by far more people than any of the other divides surveyed, including the racial divide and the economic divide. About as many people said there was a very strong conflict between Democrats and Republicans as said there was any strong conflict between black and white Americans.
This echoes a survey Pew released in October. That survey asked people for their opinions on a range of policy issues. For the most part, there was only a modest difference in responses based on gender, race or education. There was a broad divide, though, between people in different political parties — a divide that has consistently grown since about 2004.
The issues Pew was asking about were to some extent political, which would explain differing partisan views. But they also included questions that didn’t seem to have a direct relationship to politics, such as the sorts of neighborhoods people preferred. Even on those questions, there was a sharp divide on partisan lines.
In other words, not only do Americans view the divide between Democrats and Republicans as stark; it’s reflected in polling asking how they actually feel about issues.
To some extent, this is a function of how white partisans view one another. Pew provided The Post with data showing the partisan gulf solely among white respondents. That divide was wider than the overall partisan divide — indicating that the partisan divide for nonwhites was narrower.
We’ve seen clear evidence of the depth of the partisan divide in other polls, of course. A PRRI poll released earlier this month found that more than half of Republicans and more than half of Democrats saw the policies of the other party as posing a serious threat to the country. This reflected polling from Pew last year that showed that nearly 9 in 10 members of each party viewed the other party unfavorably and that about 4 in 10 see the opposition as a threat to the nation’s well-being.
It’s worth noting that it’s much more culturally acceptable to describe a gulf between two political parties than it is between members of different races or age groups. We can describe the state of affairs between Democrats and Republicans as being like a war without invoking the same connotations as saying the same thing about the races. That may have made it more likely that people would cite that divide as significant when asked by Pew.
But, again, the divide between parties is real and measurable — and trickles out into other aspects of American life. Most black Americans are Democrats, after all, and most Republicans are white. The split between the parties on policy issues will be reflected in the views of the black and white people who align with those parties. The fight over NFL player protests is a partisan fight in part because it is a fight about race.
That said, almost no one thinks Trump is alleviating racial tension, according to Pew’s new poll. Only 2 percent of Democrats said his election has improved race relations — as did only 17 percent of Republicans.
In 2009, 21 percent of Republicans said Obama was improving race relations — far fewer than the number of Democrats who said so, but a greater percentage than now say the same about Trump.