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Democrats and Republicans used to agree about the n-word. Now they don’t.

/ Managing Editor - August 30, 2018

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, first published on August 30, 2018, Good Authority contributor Michael Tesler examined the increasing partisan polarization of use of the n-word in the age of Trump.

Rumors swirl about possible tapes from “The Apprentice” showing Donald Trump using the n-word. A big question is how the release of such a tape might affect the president’s popularity.

Two recent polls suggest that any impact would be small. As the Economist wrote based on its poll, “Most Trump Voters Would Not Care if He Had Used the N-Word.” But what is even more striking is the growing partisan polarization in views of the n-word. Democrats and Republicans didn’t use to disagree about this. Now they do.

The newest polls

These two polls show that substantial numbers of Trump voters did not reject or disapprove of the use of this racial slur:

Source: Aug. 19-21 YouGov/Economist Poll; Aug. 14-16 YouGov/HuffPost Poll

Few Trump voters think that using the n-word makes whites racist, just 42 percent find the slur offensive, and only a quarter wouldn’t vote for a candidate who said it. By contrast, more than three-quarters of people who voted for Hillary Clinton think the n-word is offensive, racist and should disqualify political candidates who have said it.

The new partisan polarization on the n-word

Even a few years ago, Democrats and Republicans didn’t disagree much about the n-word. But the graphs below show the growing partisan polarization:

Source: Aug. 19-21 YouGov/Economist Poll; Dec. 5-7 CNN ORC Poll (accessed from RoperExplorer); Aug. 14-16 YouGov/HuffPost Poll; June 24-29 YouGov Poll.

In a 2006 CNN/ORC poll, 55 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans said that the n-word was offensive. By 2018, that narrow gap had widened. More Democrats (75 percent) find the n-word offensive. Meanwhile, fewer Republicans (43 percent) do.

Likewise, the percentage of Democrats who now say it’s never acceptable for whites to use the n-word increased from 71 percent in 2015 to 84 percent in 2018. But the percentage of Republicans decreased from 65 percent to 57 percent.

These large shifts among Democrats have made the country less tolerant of the n-word. The percentage of Americans who find the n-word offensive increased from 49 percent in 2006 to 53 percent in 2018. The percentage of Americans who think it’s at least sometimes acceptable for whites to use the n-word dropped from 25 percent in 2015 to 15 percent in 2018.

This pattern has occurred for many issues. In my book with John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, we show that backlash against Trump has led Americans to have more progressive views about race, immigration, Islam, and gender. At the same time, however, these shifts are concentrated among Democrats.

The upshot is intensified identity politics. If there is a video showing Trump using the n-word, it would probably only exacerbate this polarization over race and ethnicity – and the resulting American identity crisis.

Note: Updated Sept. 7, 2023.

Image: (cc) DonkeyHotey

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