Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Americans not only divided, but baffled by what motivates their opponents

By Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy

As it became clear that Democrats would win control of the U.S. House of Representatives, pundits immediately began explaining the “Blue Wave.” Some said it was rooted in concerns that President Trump was leading the nation into dangerous territory; others pointed to alarm about health care, or compassion for citizens of color and refugees.  But Republican voters were having none of this, according to a recent Penn State Mood of the Nation Poll.

The nationally representative poll of 1,000 citizens included 307 voters who cast votes for Republican Congressional candidates in the midterm elections.  We asked them, “In your opinion, how many citizens voting for the Democrats did so because they sincerely believe that the Democratic party is best for the country?”

Republicans can’t understand Democrats

Only one in four Republican voters felt that most or almost all Democratic voters sincerely believed they were voting in the best interests of the country.  Rather, many Republicans told us that Democratic voters were “brainwashed by the propaganda of the mainstream media,” or voting solely in their self-interest to preserve undeserved welfare and food stamp benefits.

We asked every Republican in the sample to do their best to imagine that they were a Democrat and sincerely believed that the Democratic Party was best for the country.  We asked them to explain their support for the Democratic Party as an actual Democratic voter might.  For example, a 64-year-old strong Republican man from Illinois surmised that “Democrats want to help the poor, save Social Security, and tax the rich.”

But most had trouble looking at the world through Democratic eyes. Typical was a a 59-year-old Floridian who wrote “I don’t want to work and I want cradle to grave assistance. In other words, Mommy!” Indeed, roughly one in six Republican voters answered in the persona of a Democratic voter who is motivated “free college,” “free health care,” “free welfare,” and so on.  They see Democrats as voting in order to get “free stuff” “without having to work for it” was extremely common – roughly one in six Republican voters used the word “free” in the their answers, whereas no real Democratic voters in our sample answered this way.

Among the Republicans who seemed to try hardest to take the perspective of sincere and patriotic Democratic voters, the most common attributions were related to immigration – a topic made salient by President Trump in his campaign stops during the last month of the election.  As in this Republican woman from Washington who said, “Democrats welcome all people into the country whether they are here legally or not.”

Democrats return the favor: Republicans uninformed or self-interested


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