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Is there anything left in American public life that isn’t an occasion for political rancor and division? NFL games are now nothing more than crude pieces of political theater. On Sunday even Vice President Mike Pence got in on the act, showing up to a Colts-49ers game then leaving after a few players knelt during the national anthem. Next day was Columbus Day, which the cities of Los Angeles and Austin decided this year to replace with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” because Christopher Columbus is apparently the new Robert E. Lee. And it’s only Tuesday.
It should be obvious by now that our culture wars will henceforth be constant and unending; the next battle could be triggered by almost anything. Whether it’s the reactions (or non-reactions) of Hollywood celebrities to the unsurprising news of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misdeeds or the outraged calls for the repeal of the Second Amendment the instant news broke of the Las Vegas massacre, very little can happen in America now without it being an occasion for an appeal to one’s own political tribe. No matter how tawdry or horrifying the news, there is vanishingly little room for solidarity because there is no appetite for it. Not even late-night comedy shows with their shrinking audiences can resist the urge to devolve into partisan political rants.
For all his eagerness to wage the culture wars in his improvised, bombastic style, this didn’t begin with Donald Trump. It didn’t begin with Barack Obama, either, but a recent study by Pew Research Center found that divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values reached record levels during the Obama administration. You don’t need a Pew survey to tell you that, of course, but the data helps illuminate an otherwise vague feeling that American society is coming apart at the seams, and has been for years.
The Pew study measures responses to issues Pew has been asking about since 1994, things like welfare, race, and immigration. On almost every count, the gaps between Republicans and Democrats held more or less steady up until around 2010, when they began to widen. Today, “Republicans and Democrats are now further apart ideologically than at any point in more than two decades,” with the median Republican more conservative than 97 percent of Democrats and the median Democrat more liberal than 95 percent of Republicans. Here’s what that looks like in a chart:
Pick your issue. On immigration, 84 percent of Democrats say immigrants strengthen the country, while only 42 percent of Republicans say the same. Ten years ago, those percentages were nearly identical. On environmental regulation, 77 percent of Democrats say more regulation is worth the cost, compared to just 36 percent of Republicans. A decade ago, that spread was 67 and 58 percent, respectively. On whether Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence, 65 percent of Republicans say it does while 69 percent of Democrats say it doesn’t. When Pew first asked that question in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the partisan gap was just 11 points.
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