America Is Not As Divided As The Parties Want You To Think
The United States has never seemed more divided. The political landscape seems like a perpetual powder keg -- one spark will ignite the flames and consume the nation. Some have even suggested that the country could be on the verge of another civil war.
This is, at least, how the press and the major players of the political process want people to view America. But are the people of the United States really this divided? Are we really a breath away from chaos across the country?
The short answer: No.
Party Division Is Hurting Our Country, and Our Politics, but It Does Not Represent the Public
It is true that the parties are more divided today than at any other point in modern US history. A Pew Research study dating back to 2014 found that in the previous 20 years, there was gradually less and less overlap between the Republican and Democratic Parties.
“And a new survey of 10,000 adults nationwide finds that these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process,” Pew said in the report.
But the expanding divide between the two parties does not extend to all of America. The parties would like people to think so, because they control the levers of government and at the end of the day, the narrative in the press sums everything up in terms of “Team Red” vs “Team Blue.”
Many Republicans and many Democrats, both in the media and on the campaign trail, talk about the opposing party like they are existential threats to the country. As a result, polling shows that many who identify with both parties view the “other side” as enemies, rather than just “political opponents.”
This is the result of an electoral system that has become solely about the us-versus-them struggle between the parties. It’s a win-at-all cost environment, in which the stakes rise in perpetuity -- and so what both sides are willing to say or do to win rises in perpetuity as well.
What we see on the campaign trail is no longer merely a political contest between the parties -- it is partisan warfare. There is a proverbial call-to-arms against the other side as the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. If the wrong side wins, the nation as we know it is doomed.
I wrote about this in 2018 in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process. Policymakers then were threatened with violence and death, envelopes filled with suspicious substances were sent to administration officials, and Senate Republicans were doxxed.
Consider the state of the campaign narrative then:
While in office and on the campaign trail former President Trump repeatedly said that Democrats will turn the US into Venezuela and crime will run rampant as illegal aliens pour into the country unchecked. Other Republicans running for office made similar assertions.
Meanwhile, in November 2018, Hillary Clinton said her party cannot be civil with Republicans who want to destroy Democratic values unless the party won back the House or took the Senate, and Eric Holder said, "When they (Republicans) go low, we kick them!"
The language hasn’t improved in the last couple of years. In fact, it continues to get worse as policymakers post on social media and send emails claiming the “other side” is a threat -- not just wrong or the wrong choice -- but a threat to the nation.
The most hateful and vitriolic political messages voters can find are on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and within these mediums exist echo chambers used to enforce a deeply held bias by those who have chosen a side between “Team Red” and “Team Blue.” But, not only are these echo chambers -- which in truth are not that large, but are extremely condensed -- used to vindicate an already held belief, but also to inflame passions and spur hate that feeds on itself in a vicious cycle.
The press also runs with the rhetoric, framing a narrative that the country is hotly divided in what might as well amount to a spectator sport. Yet, many pundits and commentators do not ask what impact it could have on individuals with a greater inclination toward violence or destruction.
Keep in mind, to many who have chosen a side, this is not just a political competition between two sides with opposing ideas. This is a partisan war where one side is always right and good, which by contrast means the other side has to always be wrong and evil.
What will the most radicalized segments of society do to win a partisan war Republicans and Democrats say they must win to preserve the future of America? What length would they go to, in their minds, defeat evil?
To cause great harm, it doesn’t take many.
Yet, the stakes only get more dire each election cycle. The rhetoric only gets more divisive, and in the 7 years since Pew’s research, the divide between the Republican and Democratic Parties has only become more pronounced -- and damaging to the constitutional republic.
The “spirit of party,” as George Washington once called it and warned, has become a flame that consumes, rather than warms.
Washington’s farewell address is well known, yet his warning about political factions has long been ignored, yet our first and only independent president’s words proved to be as prophetic as Alexis de Toqueville’s:
“[The spirit of party] agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”
This is not to say there is no room for parties, but we are seeing the unintended consequences of a system where two parties are the sole gatekeepers of our elections, and foster greater division in the pursuit of maintaining and growing political power.
Due to the fact that elections and the nation’s politics is solely about “Team Red” and “Team Blue,” the narrative suggests this growing divide represents America as a whole. Yet, this is a fallacy and must be called out.
Those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, for instance, do not account for a statistically relevant percentage of the population. They don’t even represent a majority of Trump voters, or those who believe the election results were illegitimate.
Citizen Data reports that 85% of Americans surveyed believe that violence is “never” or “rarely” justified in the pursuit of holding those in power accountable, Among those who felt the presidential election results were illegitimate, 82% said violence is “never” or “rarely” justified.
Similarly, while some on the right point to upheaval during BLM protests in 2020 as an example of violence on the left, a report showed that 93% of protests were peaceful -- which does not get into the nuances of who instigated or escalated non-peaceful actions.
And, the percentage of respondents in the Citizen Data report who said violence, looting and rioting were “not very” or “not at all” justifiable when it came to both the protests against racial injustice and the attack on the US Capitol reached levels of 88% or higher.
This means that most Americans, across the political spectrum, do not condone violent behavior in the pursuit of a cause -- or at the very least think it is rarely a right course of action. Does this sound like a country on the brink?
This is not to say that violence rioting, destruction of property, and actions that threaten the safety of others should not be condemned or prosecuted. It does, however, speak to how much the minority has been used to represent the whole of a group in a partisan-driven narrative.
Also consider that most Americans want to see lawmakers work together. In a January 2019 NPR/PBS/Marist Poll, 63% of US adults surveyed said the statement, “I like elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with,” is close to their views.
It seems consistent with other polls that a little over a third of the electorate are staunch partisans. They reject compromise, and they want their public officials to stick to a party or ideological line, no matter what.
Yet, despite representing a political minority, these voters win out with elected public officials because of the outsized power they have in elections. Thus, the prevailing narrative is that the country is hotly divided on everything, even when that narrative is a manufactured lie.
Remember what I said about the damaging effect the narrative on social media is having? If a person spends most of their time online following only people who report and commentate on politics, it might seem like the partisan hatefest online is much more prevalent than it is.
However, Pew Research found in 2019 that only 22% of US adults use Twitter, which is a platform that has received a great deal of attention since Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015. Not even 1-in-4 adults use it though.
And, of the 22% of US adults that use Twitter, only 13% of their public tweets are about national politics, and 97% of those tweets are from the most active 10% of users.
Consider this information for a moment because it further speaks to how the political system allows a marginal percentage of Americans to have the most seats at the table.
The US’s Two-Party Political Narrative Is Vastly Devoid of Understanding
It isn’t just on the subject of compromise that voters largely agree. A report released in August 2020 based on more than 30 in-depth surveys conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation identified nearly 150 key policy positions on which majorities in both parties agree.
These policy positions cover the broad scope of the nation’s most important and seemingly contentious issues, including trade, immigration, police reform, jobs, social security, budget, taxes, energy and the environment, and many more.
What is important to note about the surveys conducted, which gathered responses from over 80,000 Americans, is that when both sides of an issue are laid out, explained in-depth, and proposed solutions evaluated, voters tend to gravitate toward common interests and goals.
“What’s striking is that when citizens think through the issues and hear both sides, they often find common ground–clearly, much more so than Members of Congress,” said Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation.
Read that again: “When citizens think through the issues and hear both sides, they often find common ground.”
This is something the mainstream political narrative is severely lacking. Where voters consume their news often favors only one side, and the conversation on the campaign trail and the press lack the necessary nuances and substance to foster understanding.
US elections are not about understanding. They are not about substance. They are not about bringing voters together. They are about tearing voters apart. They are about “Team Red” and “Team Blue.” There is no room for common ground when all that matters is who wins.
This has even impacted how polling is conducted. Voters are expected to identify with one side or the other, and issues are not presented in a comprehensive manner. Many times, questions are phrased a certain way to get a desired result.
However, the Program for Public Consultation isn’t the only group that has reported on the broad agreement among Americans. Harvard’s Carr Center found in September 2020 that 7 in 10 Americans believe they have more in common with one another than people think.
Note: this is when elections are the most divisive. And yet, even during the campaign sprint to Election Day, most voters held on to the belief that they were not as divided as the national political narrative would suggest.
“Overall I think Americans want not to be divided as politics are forcing it to be, and that’s probably the biggest message of this poll,” said John Shattuck, as quoted by Politico. Shattuck is the director of the Carr Center’s project on Reimagining Rights and Responsibilities in the United States. He is also a former US assistant secretary of State of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
“Division is not what most Americans are seeking.”
Specifically, the Carr Center poll looked at the subject of rights and freedoms, including those not explicitly guaranteed in the US Constitution. Overall, 8 in 10 Americans surveyed agreed with the statement, “without our freedoms America is nothing.” Here are some notable findings from the poll:
- 93% of individuals surveyed considered the right to clean air and water essential;
- Similarly, 93% said the right to protected privacy was important;
- 92% said the same about the right to a quality education;
- 92% said the same about racial equality;
- 89% said the same about affordable health care; and
- 85% said the same about the right to a job
Getting deeper into the weeds, there will be more disagreement on how we approach these rights, but there is clearly a foundation from which to find common ground and understanding. From understanding comes empathy which fosters a desire to find mutually beneficial solutions.
Business Insider reported on just some of the issues and values that continue to unite Americans in 2017, based on reports from Pew Research, Gallup, and the General Social Survey run by the NORC at the University of Chicago. The analysis was broken down by topic.
On the subject of democracy, for instance, Business Insider looked at findings from Pew Research that found that nearly all Americans believe in the importance of
- Fair and open elections;
- A system of checks and balances;
- The right to nonviolent protests;
- Protecting the rights of individuals with unpopular opinions; and
- The freedom of news organizations to criticize political leaders.
Business Insider also used Pew Research to examine where Americans overwhelmingly agree on federal taxes, immigration, health care and paid leave from work, and other areas. It further used the General Social Survey to examine what unites Americans on the subject of federal funding for improving the environment, education, infrastructure, and mass transit, and used Gallup to examine where Americans agreed on then President Donald Trump’s campaign promises.
And, this just scratches the surface of the available data that shows critical areas of common ground among voters, and when there isn’t clear common ground, there is a willingness and a desire to seek it out and to work with the people with different views.
Beginning this conversation simply requires a starting point of mutual agreement. It begins with nearly everyone agreeing to a basic concept and from there we can build ladders that extend to substantive solutions that are mutually beneficial to a greater number of people.
And here lies the problem. The political landscape is governed by an electoral process designed to limit competition, which means reducing the need to compete for the most voters possible and limits the marketplace of ideas which denies a more nuanced dialogue.
The US political system, as I have discussed, instead amplifies division between two points of view, forcing people to pick a side, and by doing so feeds into people’s confirmation bias and conditions people to adopt a mindset of contrasts:
My side always has to be right; the other side has to always be wrong. My side is good; the other side is evil. My side will save America; the other side will destroy it.
It might be hard to believe, but unless broad systemic changes are adopted things will only escalate in future election cycles -- because this mindset can only send the political narrative in a downward spiral.
The only way to prevent this to provide an equal, fair, and accountable playing field for candidates and voters so that competition can emerge, and not just competition of candidates, but competition of ideas.
We have already established that a starting point of mutual agreement is that nearly all voters believe in the importance of free, fair, and open elections. Yet, many Americans also agree that the US political system right now is failing to provide that. We have a system of zero accountability, zero empathy, and zero leadership.
Changing this begins with changing the means by which we elect our leaders. We have a system that forces voters to come to the parties, which has created the zero sum elections we have. We need to create a system that forces the parties, and their candidates, to go to voters.
It would lead to greater accountability, which would in turn foster greater empathy as public officials would have to really listen to the concerns of voters, and from that real leaders can emerge to tackle the nation’s biggest issues in a comprehensive and nuanced way.
About the Author
Shawn is an election reform expert and National Editor of IVN.us. He studied history and philosophy at the University of North Texas. He joined the IVN team in 2012.