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A remarkable shift in attitudes leaves U.S. even more divided on race

Demonstrators protest near the White House in June 4 over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Demonstrators protest near the White House on June 4, 2020, over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who murdered by a Minneapolis police officer.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Winning back white, working-class voters — or at least keeping losses among them from getting worse — obsesses many Democrats, and for good reason.

Former President Obama owed his 2008 and 2012 victories in large part to a decent showing among non-college-educated white voters in the upper Midwest. Donald Trump‘s ability to win over those voters in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio gained the presidency for him in 2016. And Joe Biden last year regained states that Hillary Clinton had lost in part because of gains among college-educated suburbanites, but also because he succeeded in wooing at least some of those non-college voters back to the fold.

As Democrats try to stave off big losses in next year’s midterm elections, the question of how to win the loyalties of those voters has become one of their most hotly debated internal issues.

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One group argues that Democrats’ best bet is to focus their message on popular economic topics — proposals like increasing taxes on the wealthy, reducing the price of prescription drugs and expanding healthcare coverage, all of which appeal to a large number of voters of all races, polls show. At the same time, this group argues, Democrats should downplay issues of race and identity, which have much greater potential to divide voters.

Critics of that approach say that ignoring systemic racism would be immoral and wipe out turnout in majority-Black and Latino neighborhoods.

A major shift among white Democrats

Beyond that moral issue, there’s a practical argument against the idea that Democrats can win by sticking to popular economic themes: Trying to avoid issues of race and identity in politics today is a bit like telling a river to run uphill.

A new study by a team of researchers associated with the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group dramatically illustrates why that’s the case.

The U.S. is in the midst of a remarkable shift in racial attitudes, one that has made the country as a whole significantly more aware of the impact of racism and open to dealing with it, but which has also greatly widened the gulf between the parties on racial issues, the study shows.

As a result, attitudes about race and identity aren’t a secondary issue in political life; they’re central to it.

The study, by John Sides of Vanderbilt University, Michael Tesler of UC Irvine and Robert Griffin and Mayesha Quasem of the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group, based its conclusions on surveys of some 3,300 American voters tracked over the past decade, as well as a larger-scale study that the Democracy Fund did during the 2020 presidential campaign with researchers at UCLA.

They measured how Americans responded to a series of questions designed to gauge attitudes about racial discrimination and its impact.

The numbers show that the U.S. is in the midst of an unusual period in politics, said Griffin, the research director for the Voter Study Group.

U.S. attitudes about race clearly changed during the 1960s and 1970s, with the end of legally mandated segregation across the South and the passage of civil rights legislation. But starting in the 1980s, polling data showed little further change.

That stability ended about a decade ago, roughly coinciding with Obama’s first term in office. Since then, the U.S. has seen a rapid shift in views on race, one that accelerated during Trump’s tenure.

Most of the change involved Democrats moving to the left. Republican attitudes, which were already significantly more conservative than Democrats’ on racial issues, showed little movement. As a result, the gap between the two parties’ voters has widened dramatically.

For example, in 2011, polling found that about a third of Democrats, but fewer than 1 in 10 Republicans, agreed that “Black people have gotten less than they deserve” in the U.S.

By last year, that 25-point gap between the parties had ballooned to more than 60 points. Republican views shifted little, but the share of Democrats saying Black Americans weren’t getting a fair share grew to roughly 3 out of 4.

Self-defined independents also moved left in their views on race, although not as sharply as Democrats did.

Similar, although slightly smaller, shifts came on other questions, such as whether discrimination and the legacy of slavery make success harder for Black Americans.

Among Democrats, the change in attitudes cut across all racial groups, but the biggest movement came among white Democrats, the numbers show. On each of four questions about attitudes on race that the study tracked, the views of Black and white Democrats are now almost identical.

Latino Democrats did not move as much as the other two groups. A decade ago, their views on average were very similar to those of white Democrats. Now, a significant gap exists.

Part of the gap between the parties involves people changing their partisan identity as issues on race have become more prominent: Some people with conservative racial views who used to consider themselves Democrats now identify as Republicans and vice versa. But because the Voter Study Group tracked the same individuals over time, they can see that even those who stayed consistent in their party identification shifted their views.

Similar shifts have taken place on other identity-related issues, such as immigration and views about Muslims, the study noted.

Much of the change in the past several years closely tracked voters’ views of Trump.

Before Trump, recent race-based appeals mostly took subtle forms, the study noted — “dog whistles,” designed to be heard by some and not others.

But Trump “pulled the curtain back,” Griffin said, dropping the code words to exploit racial prejudice and anti-immigrant sentiment explicitly. In that way, he “played a clarifying role” for voters on where each party stood.

People often form their views in part as a result of cues they receive from opinion leaders, the study noted. And “cues from enemies can be more important than cues from allies.”

In this case, the intense dislike many Democrats have for Trump appears to have spurred moderate or conservative Democrats into taking more liberal views on race in opposition to him.

That shift has its limits. Views on specific programs, including affirmative action and reparations for slavery, for example, have not changed as much as the attitudes about race in principle.

That gap between how people respond on specific programs and what they say about their underlying attitudes could suggest that the shift in views about race is only “superficial,” Griffin said. But it’s also possible that programmatic views could change more over time, especially if political leaders make those issues a priority.

The study also found that big changes in views toward police and the Black Lives Matter movement that occurred after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year have largely faded, an indication that views on racial issues are malleable, at least for some voters, but that long-term change doesn’t come easily.

Overall, the central role that race and identity play in American life “means our politics may feel more visceral, more emotionally intense” than a debate over whether the top income tax rate should be 32% or 39%, Griffin said.

But, he added, for good or ill, the key role those issues play isn’t likely to change — however much some Democratic strategists might want the party to downplay them.

It’s “a bit like sledding downhill,” Griffin said. Once the political landscape has been shaped by conflicts over race, steering the debate to some other track becomes very hard.

“The idea that just by messaging you’d be able to move out of this,” he said, “isn’t very reasonable.”

Republicans block voting rights bill

The Democrats’ voting rights bill died in the Senate in a party line vote that amped up pressure to end the filibuster, Erin Logan reported.

The GOP move to block debate on the bill was no surprise. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had made clear that he would not allow the bill to come to the floor. Democrats would have needed 60 votes to block McConnell’s filibuster.

The version of the bill that Democratic leaders pushed was a compromise developed by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Some Democrats have hoped that if the GOP killed Manchin’s bill, the West Virginia senator, who has opposed any change in the filibuster rules, might soften his stand. So far, there’s no indication that’s happening.

Vice President Kamala Harris sharply criticized Republicans for blocking the voting rights bill, Logan reported.

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The latest from Washington

The Biden administration and Texas presented written arguments to the Supreme Court over whether the state’s controversial new abortion law should be allowed to stay in effect.

As David Savage reported, the administration argued that Texas was unconstitutionally trying to “nullify” a constitutional right. If Texas can do that on abortion, another state could do the same with gun rights or free speech, administration officials argued.

Texas’ lawyers, in their brief, told the justices that the federal government had suffered no injury to its own interests and has no legal standing to sue to protect the constitutional rights of individuals.

The justices could decide within days whether to put the law on hold or allow it to continue in force.

The pandemic has spurred many young families to leave big cities for smaller urban areas, and cities like Topeka, Kan., and Stillwater, Okla., as well as states like West Virginia, are moving quickly to capitalize on the trend, Don Lee reported. Whether they’ll stay remains a big question.

Democrats wanted to include a major effort to slow climate change in their massive spending bill. It’s proving harder than they expected, Jennifer Haberkorn and Anna Phillips reported.

The White House announced its plan for vaccinating children against COVID-19. Logan provided the details on what the plan entails.

During the late 1970s, the U.S. dumped more than 3 million cubic feet of contaminated soil and debris — the residue of years of nuclear weapons tests — into a huge pit on Runit Island, part of the Marshall Islands chain. Now, amid fears of radioactive leaks, the Marshallese and the U.S. governments are at odds over who’s responsible for ensuring safety.

As Susanne Rust reported, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) chided the Biden administration at a recent congressional hearing for not making more progress in negotiations with the Marshallese. The hearing revealed divisions within the administration over what position to take.

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The latest from California

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The new rule could have a major impact on drilling in urban areas — long a fixture in Southern California. But as Phil Willon reported, the oil industry is certain to push back, and the rule likely won’t go into effect until at least 2023.

The state has also set new rules to combat mystery donations made on behalf of lawmakers by wealthy individuals or other interests, Melody Gutierrez reported.

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