The election of Donald Trump has stoked international interest in the trends shaping American politics. At this unique political moment, what are the fundamental attitudes in the United States that have influenced the country’s path? While the American opinion landscape is complex, Pew Research Center surveys have identified three underlying trends that took shape prior to the 2016 campaign and played a role in defining the election contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton: record-low trust in the federal government, widening gaps between the views of Republicans and Democrats, and growing animosity between the two partisan coalitions.
Political polarization is one of the defining characteristics of U.S. politics today. Americans who associate with the Republican and Democratic parties increasingly have less in common with each other in terms of their basic values and beliefs than at any point in the last two decades.
A 2015 Pew Research Center analysis found that 93 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents held views to the ideological right of the typical Democrat’s; 94 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents held views to the left of the typical Republican’s. While Republicans and Democrats have always differed in their values, the current divide between the two parties has grown significantly over the past 20 years. As a result, the ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Republicans and Democrats now have less in common with each other politically than at any point in the recent past.
What’s more, growing ideological polarization is even more pronounced among those who are the most politically engaged. Republicans and Democrats who are registered to vote, regularly vote in elections and engage in other political activities (such as contacting elected officials and donating to campaigns) are even further apart in their values and beliefs than are less-engaged Americans. The political distance in views seen among the public corresponds to an even starker dynamic in Congress. According to a widely used metric called DW-NOMINATE that looks at roll call votes, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are now more ideologically distant than at any point in the modern political era.
The growing ideological distance between Republicans and Democrats has been accompanied by a rising tide of partisan animosity in the United States.
Partisans’ views of the opposing party are now more intensely negative than at any point in nearly a quarter of a century. Large shares of Republicans and Democrats hold a generally unfavorable view of the other party, but partisans have long held a dim view of the other side. What’s new in American politics is the intensity of negative feeling. About 4 in 10 Republicans and Democrats now hold a very unfavorable view of the other party. This intensely negative sentiment has risen sharply in recent decades. For example, in 1994 — not exactly a moment of political comity in American politics — just 16 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of Republican viewed the opposing party very unfavorably.
Beyond favorability, both Democrats and Republicans have a negative emotional reaction to the other party. In the Center’s 2016 survey, more than half of Democrats (55 percent) said the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49 percent of Republicans said the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics, 70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans said they were afraid of the other party.
Increasingly, what seems to animate both Republicans and Democrats is dislike of, and opposition to, the other political side.
See "Public Trust in Government [...]" graph.
Ideological polarization and partisan animosity are occurring against the backdrop of low public trust in the federal government. Only 20 percent of Americans feel they can trust the federal government to do what’s right just about always or most of the time; far more say they can only trust the government some of the time (68 percent), and 11 percent volunteer the response that they can never trust the federal government. Americans’ trust in government has been stalled at or near an all-time low for the better part of the past decade — a period spanning both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Low trust in government is reflected in many of the public’s views about the nation’s politics.
A Pew Research Center analysis in 2015 found that negative views of elected officials were one of the most powerful correlates of low trust in government. Large majorities said that elected officials lose touch with the public quickly and that they don’t care much about the views of average people. In fact, just 22 percent of Americans said that most elected officials put the interests of the country ahead of their own; nearly three-quarters (74 percent) said officials put their own interests ahead of the country’s.
A fall 2015 survey found that 55 percent of the public said that ordinary Americans would do a better job than elected officials in solving the country’s problems, while just 39 percent did not think ordinary people would do a better job — a powerful expression of the public’s cynicism toward government and elected officials.
Taken together, these three opinion tends — all of which had been growing before 2016 — exerted a powerful influence on last year’s presidential election campaign.
Distrust in government and negative views of elected officials served to reinforce the long-standing appeal of the political outsider in American politics. In 2016, Trump was far better positioned to take on this role than Clinton (a familiar face in American politics for decades who had served as secretary of state under Barack Obama). It was a role Trump embraced, often describing himself as the one candidate who could reform a corrupt system — rhetoric in line with many of the public’s negative views of Washington. (It is little coincidence that both of the last two presidents — Obama and Trump — ran campaigns centered on the theme of change.)
Low trust in government also provides space in which ideological polarization and partisan antipathy express themselves.
Trump and Hillary Clinton were two historically unpopular presidential candidates. Both Republicans and Democrats voiced concerns about their own party’s candidate. For many, a key trait was who their candidate was not. In October 2016, 51 percent of Trump supporters said their vote was more against Clinton than for Trump. Among Clinton supporters, 41 percent similarly defined their vote in more negative than positive terms. Both percentages were among the highest on record in recent decades.
Come Election Day, partisans overwhelmingly supported the candidate from their own party. In a polarized environment, distaste for the opposition can be a powerful motivator of support for one’s own party — especially for a partisan with some doubts about their nominee.
Early in the Trump administration, these fundamental trends in American opinion show no signs of abating. Pew Research Center surveys found an enormous partisan divide in Trump approval ratings within his first few months in office, a level of polarization not seen at this stage of a presidency in the modern polling era. And despite the major shift of power in Washington, public trust in government remains stubbornly low. Chief among the challenges Trump faces is finding a way to lead a country that is increasingly divided along partisan lines and deeply distrustful of the very institution that he now leads.
Alec Tyson is a senior researcher at Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research. All of the Center’s reports are available at www.pewresearch.org. You can follow Alec on Twitter @alec_h_tyson.