We asked Americans to tell us in their own words what they thought about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with people connected to the Russian government. And tell us they did!
Our analysis of these open-ended responses reveals a partisan divide much deeper than simply agreeing or disagreeing whether Donald Trump, Jr. should have taken the meeting.
Democrats have deep concerns about the Trump administration, and many of them see the meeting as an indication of threats to the country’s sovereignty and an erosion of the democratic process. Republicans have a more dismissive attitude; they see the meeting as perfectly ordinary and are displeased by the alarmists trying to stir up political trouble because of it.
Without digging into responses to the “Why?” question, this finding doesn’t seem so stark. When asked whether they were concerned about the meeting, about half (47%) of respondents said it concerned them “quite a bit” or “a lot,” while just a few more (51%) said it concerned them “just some” or “very little.”
The partisan divide here was obvious. As our friends at The Washington Post reported, the level of concern about the meeting corresponded with respondents’ political party identification. In other words, most people who said they were more concerned were Democrats, and most people who were less concerned were Republicans.
This is consistent with most questions about politics these days: we’re in a hyper-partisan era. It’s not only that the major political parties have grown more ideologically distanced from one another, Americans themselves are increasingly divided along their liberal or conservative ideology. This liberal/conservative divide extends even to lifestyle choices, like whether you prefer cats over dogs (spoiler, liberals prefer cats).
But it turns out that partisanship is about more than just disagreements about the issues or whether President Trump is doing a good or bad job. Today’s partisanship reflects very different worldviews among Democrats and Republicans—and our data give lots of insights into why.
First, let’s examine responses by the sentiment that they express. Most words can be categorized as either positive, negative, or neutral. For example, “beautiful,” “abundant,” and “strong” all have positive connotations; “alarming,” “sad,” and “stupid” all have negative connotations. We looked at every word in every response to our open-ended “Why?” question, and classified each one using the R package tidytext.
A large majority (87%) of Democrats but only a small minority (9%) of Republicans were “quite a bit” or “a lot” concerned about the meeting, which helps explain why negativity was slightly more prevalent amongst Democrats. We found that Democrats used relatively more negative words (18% of all words used) compared to Republicans (14%) and independents (15%). The use of positive words was the same across party identifications: about 5.5%.
Next, let’s look at the specific words that people used to get a better sense of how people of different political ideologies view politics. One way to do this is to use natural language processing (NLP) to measure how often different words are used within particular groups of people.
We did exactly that—removing frequently used words that are not informative (like “the,” “of,” “they,” and “has”) in order to zero in on more informative and distinctive words.
Looking at just single words mentioned by Republicans, we find that the important words refer to “Democrats” and “liberals.” On closer inspection these words are used to describe how the furor is over Trump Jr.’s meeting is a liberal fantasy and also to underscore that politicians normally have meetings like these.
On the other hand, Democrats don’t mention their political adversaries: their important words are about the destruction of democracy and accusations of collusion.
When we look at two-word combinations used most often (weighted using term frequency-inverse document frequency), Republicans focused on the “liberal media” and Democrats focused on the phrase “foreign power.” While Republicans mentioned Russia, they didn’t emphasize its foreign-ness, and instead emphasized the fact that the meeting was more of a business concern, and also that Bill Clinton had done similar things. Democrats, on the other hand, were concerned about the entire political system, viewing this meeting as threatening to national security and the democratic process itself.
These analyses paint vastly different pictures about opinions on the Donald Trump Jr. meeting. Democrats take a decidedly negative view, seeing it as evidence of collusion and weakening national democratic autonomy under Trump’s administration. Meanwhile, Republicans dismiss concerns as an overblown, leftist frenzy, contending that such meetings are normal and no different from what other politicians have done, including Bill Clinton.