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Divisions in America reach far beyond Washington into the nation’s culture, economy and social fabric, and the polarization began long before the rise of President Donald Trump, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey of social trends has found.
The findings help explain why political divisions are now especially hard to bridge. People who identify with either party increasingly disagree not just on policy; they inhabit separate worlds of differing social and cultural values and even see their economic outlook through a partisan lens.
The wide gulf is visible in an array of issues and attitudes: Democrats are twice as likely to say they never go to church as are Republicans, and they are eight times as likely to favor action on climate change. One-third of Republicans say they support the National Rifle Association, while just 4% of Democrats do. More than three-quarters of Democrats, but less than one-third of Republicans, said they felt comfortable with societal changes that have made the U.S. more diverse.
What is more, Americans’ view of the economy, the direction of the nation and the future has even come to be closely aligned with their feelings about the current president, the survey found.
“Our political compass is totally dominating our economic and world views about the country,” said GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Fred Yang. “Political polarization is not a new thing. The level under Trump is the logical outcome of a generation-long trend.”
The poll found deep splits along geographic and educational lines. Rural Americans and people without a four-year college degree are notably more pessimistic about the economy and more conservative on social issues. Those groups make up an increasingly large share of the GOP.
One measure of how much more polarized the electorate is than a generation ago can be found in views of the president. Eight months into the 1950s presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower, 60% of Democrats approved of the job he was doing. That level of cross-party support for a new president remained above 40% until Bill Clinton, when only 20% of Republicans approved of his performance after eight months in 1993. For Barack Obama, Republican support dropped to 16% at this point in his presidency in 2009.
Under Mr. Trump, that trend has continued and intensified. His job-approval rating among Americans overall has remained in recent months at about 40%, but just 8% of Democrats approve of the job he is doing, the survey found. By contrast, 80% of Republicans approve.
Mr. Trump’s election has brought a sharp mood swing among Republicans. In August 2014, 88% of Republicans said they weren’t confident that life for their children’s generation would be better than their own, a gloomy view of a central element of the American dream. Eight months into the Trump presidency, just 46% of Republicans say they lack confidence in their children’s future—a 42-point swing that is more dramatic than improvements in the economy would seem to justify.
The survey found changes over the years in attitudes on cultural and economic issues, such as gun control, immigration and globalization, that were key issues of Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Views of gun rights used to be less partisan: Asked if they were concerned that the government would go too far in restricting gun-ownership rights or, alternatively, that the government wouldn’t do enough, Republicans in 1995 were about evenly split. Democrats were divided 26% to 67%.
Now, 77% of Republicans say they are concerned the government would go too far, and just 18% worry the government wouldn’t do enough. Democratic opinion is the mirror image, 24% to 71%.
Views of immigration have also become more partisan. In an April 2005 poll that asked whether immigration strengthened or weakened the U.S., a plurality of 48% said it weakened the nation, with 41% saying immigration strengthened the country.
Now, a substantial majority of 64% view immigration as strengthening the country, while 28% say it weakens the U.S. The change is due almost entirely to a sharp shift in Democrats’ views. In 2005, just 45% of Democrats said the country was strengthened by immigration; now the share is 81%.
Democrats also are now more inclined to see globalization as beneficial, compared with 20 years ago, when both parties had largely similar views of the matter.
Two groups in particular have a relatively pessimistic view of the economy—rural Americans and those with less education.
Some 43% of rural residents gave a high rating to their local economy’s health, compared with 57% of urban dwellers. Among people without a four-year college degree, only 47% viewed the economy in their area as good or excellent, compared with two-thirds of people with a degree.
Both groups have been moving from the Democratic Party to the GOP.
Among people without a four-year college degree, a plurality of 44% identified as Democrats in 2010. Now, only 36% do. Among those who are college graduates, just 36% now identify as Republican, versus 41% in 2010.
While there is broad agreement that the country is riven by division, there is no consensus on why.
Fully 80% of those surveyed saw the country as mainly or totally divided. But Democrats and independents tended to see the division as rooted in economics—the income gap between the rich and the poor. Republicans saw the split as political, with people divided based on their party affiliation, and as a function of which media outlets they follow.
“It’s as if everyone agrees that it’s too divisive and we can’t get along, but also that everyone else is wrong,” said Mr. Yang.
The Journal/NBC News poll surveyed 1,200 people from August 5-9. The margin of error for the full sample was plus or minus 2.82 percentage points.