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New Study: Leftward Shift Among Democrats and Independents While Republicans Stagnate Has Led to Wide Polarization Among Americans on Identity Issues

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Opposition to Trump policies and rhetoric accelerated Democrats’ shift, while George Floyd’s murder had a mostly temporary impact, according to new Democracy Fund Voter Study Group report on Americans’ shifting views on race, immigration, and identity over the past nine years.

WASHINGTON, October 21, 2021--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Race and racialized issues—including policing, reparations for slavery, voting rights, the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration, and others—have remained prominent in the first year of the Biden Administration and were central to the 2020 presidential election. The longer-term context for the re-emergence of identity issues includes a remarkable and ongoing shift in attitudes about topics related to racial, ethnic, religious, and national identities. After decades of relative stasis in racial attitudes, Democrats have become dramatically more liberal over the past several years while Republicans have not moved on these issues.

Today, the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group releases a report that sheds light on this shift and related issues: "Racing Apart: Partisan Shifts on Racial Attitudes Over the Last Decade," by Robert Griffin and Mayesha Quasem of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, John Sides of Vanderbilt University and Michael Tesler of the University of California, Irvine.

Using two unique survey projects—one that has tracked over 3,300 Americans over almost 10 years and another that interviewed 500,000 Americans between July 2019 and February 2021—the study’s authors uncovered the following key findings:

  • The murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed had a dramatic impact on Americans’ attitudes on policing and the Black Lives Matter movement. However, these shifts were mostly temporary. The long-term consequence of these shifts was even more partisan polarization on racial issues.

  • Despite a growing recognition that slavery and discrimination have created obstacles for Black people, support for policies that address these obstacles lags.

"Our study concludes that rising acceptance of more liberal views on racial issues isn’t matched by a corresponding level of support for concrete steps to address racism, such as reparations," said Michael Tesler, Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. "Only when it comes to affirmative action do we see a decisive shift in support."

  • Compared to 2011, Democrats in 2020 were far more likely to agree that Black people have gotten less than they deserve (32% vs. 73%) and to agree that discrimination makes it difficult for Black people to make economic progress (51% vs. 77%). Democrats were also more likely to disagree that Black people should overcome prejudice without favors (35% vs. 64%) and to disagree that Black people could be as well off as white people if they tried harder (50% vs. 71%). Independents showed smaller but directionally similar changes.

  • Donald Trump’s actions and rhetoric helped create this divergence. White Americans’ views of Trump as of 2016 were strongly correlated with shifts in their views on these issues between 2016 and 2020. As a result, white Democrats placed themselves further in opposition to a candidate and president who made explicit racial appeals.

"This study demonstrates that while Democrats had already moved left on identify issues, Trump’s brand of identity politics—including explicit racial appeals and the demonization of various racial, ethnic, and religious groups—helped push Democrats even further in the opposite direction," Voter Study Group Research Director Robert Griffin said. "As Republicans react to Biden on such issues, especially immigration, the gulf between the parties could widen even more."

  • Democratic and Republican attitudes on identity-related topics diverged significantly between 2011 and 2020—including their attitudes on racial inequality, police, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration, and Muslims. Most of this divergence derives from shifts among Democrats, who have grown much more liberal over this period. The number of Republicans who agreed or disagreed with these statements did not change substantially during this period.

"Americans’ overall liberalization on identity issues masks the fact that Republicans have barely shifted. Supporters of the parties remain far apart, making it difficult to reach consensus," said Mayesha Quasem, research assistant at Voter Study Group.

  • There are early signs that Republicans are reacting against Biden’s immigration policies just as Democrats reacted against Trump’s. As a result, Republicans have increasingly less favorable views of immigration.

"Party politics in the U.S. increasingly is organized around fundamental questions about racial justice and American identity," said John Sides, Professor and William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair in the department of political science at Vanderbilt University. "Democrats are much more likely to believe in systemic racism, and Republicans are much more likely to oppose immigration."

About Democracy Fund Voter Study Group

The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group is a research collaboration of more than two dozen analysts and scholars from across the political spectrum. Created in the wake of the 2016 election, the Voter Study Group’s goal is to better understand the American electorate by examining and delivering insights on the evolving views of American voters. Research and analysis from Voter Study Group members can be found at and on Twitter @democracyfund.

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Hannah Rimar
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Fraser MacPherson
(206) 770-7094

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