The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most Republicans see Democrats not as political opponents but as enemies

Supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump hold flags and signs near Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 20. (Saul Martinez/Bloomberg News)

The idea is a simple one: A country in which people with at-times differing views of how things should be run get together and vote on representatives who will enact policy. The candidates with the most support take office, working to build consensus for the policies their constituents want to see. Both before and after the election, there’s an expectation that disagreements will be resolvable and resolved.

This is an idealized version of our system, of course, but that’s how ideals work. Central to American politics is the idea that even if your candidate loses, the winner will advocate for you. But in an era in which the winners of elections in November are often those who manage to clamber over their primary opponents in the spring, the idea that a Democratic legislator will feel beholden to Republican constituents — or vice versa — seems almost quaint.

That said, we run the risk of establishing an equivalence where one may not exist. For example, we have new polling from CBS News, conducted by YouGov, which explores how members of each political party tend to think of members of the opposing party.

Most Democrats say that they tend to view Republicans as political opponents. Most Republicans say that they tend to view Democrats as enemies.

The gap between the two parties on this question is stark. There’s a 32-point difference on net between how Democrats view Republicans and vice versa, on a question positing that members of a political party might be viewed with overt hostility. It’s grim — and it is consistent with increasingly hostile partisan views over time.

Pew Research Center, for example, has tracked partisan sentiment for years. One way it does so is presenting people with a thermometer scale in which they are asked to evaluate their feelings using temperature. Dislike someone? They get a zero. Love them? 100.

From December 2016 to September 2019, the percentage of both Democrats and Republicans viewing members of the other party coldly (to extend the analogy) increased significantly — as did the percentage of partisans offering a very cold measure of the opposition. More than half of both Republicans and Democrats held very cold views of the other party in that last survey.

As in the CBS poll, Democrats’ views of Republicans tend to be a bit more positive. When presented with an opportunity to opine on the characteristics of those in the opposing party, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say their opponents were closed-minded — but Republicans were significantly more likely to say Democrats were unpatriotic, immoral or lazy. In most cases, those negative sentiments had increased since 2016.

Pew’s data also suggest that opinions of the opposing party as an institution are also not particularly warm — but are warmer among Democrats. Neither Democrats nor Republicans see the opposing party as particularly ethical, but Democrats are twice as likely to say the Republican Party cares about the middle class as Republicans are to say the same of the Democratic Party. Democrats are three times as likely to say that the GOP is respectful and tolerant of others as Republicans are to say the same of the Democrats.

This is all subtext to President Biden’s calls for a more united United States. This shift was the focus of his inauguration and, really, his 2020 campaign. But how successful can he be if most Republicans view him and his party as their enemy? If two-thirds of Republicans have been convinced that Biden didn’t legitimately win the election, as the CBS poll found, thanks to dishonesty from Biden’s predecessor, abetted by Republican leaders? If Republicans see Democrats and the Democratic Party in hostile, largely negative terms, even more so than Democrats see them?

Our initial presentation of how American politics works as an ideal seems ridiculous in the current political environment. Power isn’t shared, it’s hoarded. Those who lose are all but exiled from the conversation. A focus on elections instead of governance bolsters a winner-takes-all sensibility which reinforces entrenchment.

How is this unwound?