Despite bipartisan support from South Carolina lawmakers to remove the Confederate flag from the state Capitol grounds, recent polling on the flag controversy tells a now-familiar story — Democrats and Republicans have strikingly dissimilar worldviews about race. In fact, partisan opinion differences on the Confederate battle flag appear to be even larger than the opinion divide between blacks and whites.
That’s consistent with the enormous gulf between how Democrats and Republicans have reacted to race-related events in the age of Obama. In the last two years alone, reactions toward George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Donald Sterling’s forced sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, the Ferguson protesters, the decision not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner respectively, Freddie Gray’s death while in Baltimore police custody, and even the Oscar for best picture for “12 Years a Slave” were all powerfully polarized by partisanship.
As I’ve discussed in a prior post and elaborated on in my forthcoming book, “Post-Racial or Most-Racial?”, Democrats and Republicans have not always seen racial controversies so differently. Opinions about high-profile race controversies before Obama’s presidency were far less polarized by party identification, including the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson trial, firing Don Imus for racist remarks, the Duke LaCross case and the Jena Six arrests.
It’s not surprising, then, that the figure below shows that Republicans and Democrats have had increasingly different opinions about the Confederate flag. In 1992, when Gallup first asked its respondents what they thought the Confederate flag symbolized, Democrats were only 16 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say it symbolized racism. By last month, that modest difference between Democrats and Republicans had widened into a 44 percentage point schism when CNN/ORC Poll asked the exact same question.
The current partisan divide over the Confederate flag’s meaning may be even larger, according to a June 2015 YouGov survey. Democrats were five times more likely than Republicans to see the flag primarily as a racist symbol in that poll (70 percent to 14 percent respectively).
Even using the more conservative CNN/ORC estimate, the graph shows that the percentage of Democrats who see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism has nearly doubled from 31 percent in 1992 to 58 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Republicans have remained consistent in viewing the Confederate flag as mainly a symbol of Southern pride.
Why? There are several plausible reasons. As we know, public opinion about a number of issues has become more divided along party lines in recent years. And Southern realignment from the Democratic to the Republican Party over the past half-century has also surely contributed to the growing partisan divide over race in general and the Confederate flag in particular.
But a large piece of the puzzle can still be explained by the central claim of my book: Mass politics has become more polarized by racial attitudes because of Barack Obama’s rise. As I show, the election of President Obama helped usher not a post-racial but a “most-racial” political era. Racially liberal and racially conservative Americans are now more divided over a host of political positions — evaluations of public figures, policy preferences, vote choices for Congress and party identification — than they have been in modern times.
A natural consequence of that “racialization” of American politics is that Democrats and Republicans will continue viewing racial controversies like Ferguson, Baltimore and the Confederate flag through very different lenses.
Michael Tesler is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California/Irvine.