It is one thing for US voters to be deeply divided on issues such as health care, taxes and the role of government. These are matters of political philosophy that can and should be debated. But the depth of the partisan, generational and racial divide on attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims is frightening because the values Americans claim are central to their definition as a society are at stake.
A new JZ Analytics poll reveals that Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans and American Muslims have the highest overall unfavourable ratings of all the ethnic and religious groups covered in the survey. The poll, conducted for the Arab American Institute, found that while more than seven in 10 US voters had favourable attitudes toward the main Protestant denominations, Catholics and Jews, less than five in 10 were positively inclined towards Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans and American Muslims. In fact, Muslims were the only religious group to receive a net unfavourable rating, with a score of 40 per cent favourable to 41 per cent unfavourable.
Underlying these ratings is a deep partisan divide regarding attitudes of voters toward Arabs and Muslims. For example, Americans who say they intend to vote for President Barack Obama give Arabs a 51 per cent favourable / 29 per cent unfavourable rating, and Muslims a 53 per cent / 29 per cent rating. Those who say they will vote for Mitt Romney give Arabs and Muslims ratings of 30 per cent / 50 per cent and 25 per cent / 57 per cent respectively.
On closer examination, this partisan divide is grounded in a generational and racial divide. Younger voters from the ages of 18 to 29 give Arabs and Muslims 50 per cent / 34 per cent favourable / unfavourable rating and Muslims a 53 / 34 rating. On the other hand, older voters over 65 give Arabs and Muslims much lower 26 / 39 and 30 / 48 ratings, respectively.
These ratios are matched by the gap between white and "minority" voters. For example, only 38 per cent of white voters view Arabs favourably, as opposed to 51 per cent of African-American, Hispanic and Asian American voters who report favourable views of Arabs.
This affects Arab Americans and American Muslims as full participants in American society. When asked about an Arab American appointed to a government post, 54 per cent of Obama voters express confidence that the person could do the job, with only 21 per cent expressing concern that Arab Americans would let "ethnic loyalty influence their decision-making".
Among Romney voters, attitudes are exactly the reverse. And the assessment of American Muslims is even worse, with almost six in 10 Romney supporters fearing that Muslims would let "their religion influence their decision-making", and only two in 10 confident that Muslims could do the jobs to which they were assigned.
This suspicion of Arabs and Muslims has its origins in bigotry and ignorance. Public opinion was clearly affected by the hostile campaigns that have been waged in recent years, including the 2010 anti-Park 51 hysteria that was used by some Republicans as a wedge issue in congressional elections; the effort in 24 states to pass laws banning Sharia; the call for a special loyalty oath for Muslims seeking government employment; and the witch hunt launched by some Republican members of Congress against American Muslim government employees.
But bigoted campaigns only partly account for this divide. Ignorance is also a factor. Six in 10 Americans say that they do not know any Arabs or Muslims. One-half of young voters and "minority" voters say they know members of these groups, while three-quarters of older, white voters say they do not.
Those who know Arabs and Muslims have significantly more positive attitudes than those who do not. For example, 56 per cent of those who know an Arab or a Muslim have a favourable view of Muslims, compared to 32 per cent of respondents who do not know any Arabs or Muslims.
It is striking to compare this year's poll results with those of earlier years. Since most Americans still do not know the difference between an "Arab" and a "Muslim", the favourable / unfavourable ratings given to both communities continue to closely track one another. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the September 11 attacks are not the cause of these negative attitudes.
Attitudes toward both communities were actually better in 2003 and they held steady until 2010 when the organised campaign of incitement against Muslims reached a climax with the anti-Park 51 campaign. That year was the turning point in which we recorded the lowest favourable attitudes toward both communities. Ratings have moved slightly upwards since then, but are still below what they were in 2003.
The lesson is as clear as it is dangerous. Left unchecked, those who prey on ignorance and fear to spread hatred, and those who sow the seeds of division and intolerance, threaten to tear apart the fabric of the nation and compromise the values of openness and inclusion that have made America united and strong.
Purveyors of intolerance also put at risk the rights of Americans as full and equal citizens without fear of discrimination.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa