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Much Of America’s Political Divide Is An Illusion
Reducing fear between America’s tribal factions is the first step to alleviating the destructive effects of our polarization.
If you’ve read or listened to the news in recent years, you’ve likely heard a refrain that goes something like this: America is stuck in an ongoing political and cultural cold war between two entrenched sides that don’t see eye to eye on anything. This familiar, sweeping narrative would have casual news consumers believe that just about everyone in America has picked a side in an existential battle for the future of the country.
To be sure, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that Americans are divided. These divisions are perhaps most apparent in our government. By some measures, the two major parties are further apart ideologically today than at any time since the Civil War. Moreover, interpersonal spats between members of Congress have grown increasingly acrimonious (and public) over the last few decades, and the attempt by several members of the Republican Party to overturn the results of the 2020 election only exacerbated interparty relations.
We see a similar story taking place in the broader public. There has been an increased willingness—even desire—among many Americans to self-sort along polarizing lines. For example, college students are less likely to want to room with someone of a different political persuasion or go to school in a state where the dominant political milieu differs from their own sensibilities. The share of people willing to marry someone from the other political party is also declining.
Americans are well aware of—and concerned about—the severity of the nation’s divides. Some have opened themselves to the idea of a “national divorce,” in which Americans would sort into red states and blue states and live apart. A not-insignificant contingent even fears the prospect of a second civil war. Large majorities also believe the country is destined to become more divided in the years ahead.
Amid this never-ending doom spiral of division, many of us have become convinced that we have nothing in common with those in the opposing tribe, especially on the toughest moral issues of the day. And when we just know the other side is so extreme and hateful—that the most pugnacious and provocative voices among them must be representative of them all—how is it possible to ever compromise with them or even listen to them with an open mind?
Here’s where I can report some hopeful news: Americans are actually more moderate, more heterodox, and less easily sorted along partisan lines than the media might have us believe.
This is apparent in a few different ways. Gallup’s annual survey of partisan self-identification has found that independents have constituted a growing plurality of all voters since 2009, a sign that fewer people are making their attachment to one of the two major parties a core part of their identity. Additionally, data from the 2022 midterms showed that just 27 percent of voters identified as either “very” liberal or conservative, while the vast majority (73 percent) either thought of themselves as moderate or only “somewhat” liberal or conservative. The Pew Research Center also periodically releases studies of the two major parties’ coalitions, which demonstrate just how much diversity of thought and life experience exists among voters within each party.
Beyond these topline self-identification statistics, many Americans are often not very ideologically rigid on thorny political or social issues, either. Few fully embrace the most strident or extreme positions of their political tribe. It’s in this complexity and gray area that we might begin to find our way out of the wilderness on some of the most contentious issues driving the culture wars and plaguing American politics today.
Let’s consider some instructive examples.
Racial justice issues
Many Democrats believe that Republicans not only don’t care about racial justice but actively oppose measures to secure equal rights for racial minorities. A study by the group More in Common found that Democrats estimated just half of Republicans even believed racism still existed in America. In reality, that figure was closer to 80 percent. Similarly, a 2021 Gallup survey asking whether voters approved of interracial marriages found that nine in 10 Republican respondents favored them.
On the flip side, many conservatives fear that liberals are so obsessed with race that they are willing to supplant longstanding American support for merit in things like college admissions with race-based considerations. In fact, a majority of Democrats oppose using race and ethnicity as a major factor in college admissions—as do, notably, majorities of black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans.
Americans on the whole do not want public schools to be mills for promoting social justice activism but rather institutions that prepare kids for 21st-century jobs and teach them how to reason and think critically. Republicans, as well as Democrats of color, also agree that schools may not be the best place for teaching more divisive and unsettled concepts like whether gender identity is separable from biological sex.
At the same time, an overwhelming share of the public—including a majority of Republicans—favors teaching students about the history of racism in America. And while there are partisan divides on how best to teach some divisive topics, both Democrats and Republicans broadly oppose banning their teaching altogether. The vast majority of Americans also oppose banning books about controversial topics.
The post-Roe v. Wade climate has led several states with single-party rule to pass laws at the extremes of the abortion debate, with blue states rolling back most or all restrictions and red states doubling down on them. But all-or-nothing laws belie the complexity of Americans’ views on this perennially challenging moral issue. In fact, within both party coalitions, there are significant shares of people whose views deviate from their side’s predominant sentiments.
The country is generally more supportive of abortion rights than not. A healthy majority disagrees with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, and even around 40 percent of Republicans think abortion should be legal in “all or most cases.” Many Americans, including the vast majority of Republicans, also believe that there should, at minimum, be exceptions for rape and incest and to protect the life of the mother. At the same time, most of the country favors at least some restrictions. A Harvard/Harris poll conducted just after the Supreme Court’s decision came down last June showed 72 percent of Americans—including 60 percent of Democrats—support restrictions at 15 weeks of pregnancy (or earlier), while just 10 percent favored allowing unrestricted abortion access up to nine months.
There is perhaps no topic more closely tied to America’s culture war today than transgender issues. Indeed, there are deep partisan divisions over whether greater acceptance of trans people is “good for society,” and some red and blue states have ironically found consensus on removing trans children from their parents’ custody—though for vastly different reasons. But several recent polls have found that the public holds a mix of conservative and liberal views on these issues.
In some ways, the country is a little more skeptical of left-leaning positions on these issues. For example, they generally oppose allowing trans women to compete in women’s sports, and more than two-thirds believe that schools should either teach that gender is inseparable from one’s biological sex or not talk about it at all (a position held by notably high numbers of black and Hispanic Democrats). Substantial majorities also oppose medical interventions for minors such as puberty blockers and hormone therapies.
However, most Americans are leery of government overreach into transgender people’s lives and believe that this population faces discrimination. As a result, majorities support protections against discrimination in jobs and housing. Two-thirds of the country also favors making counseling available to gender-dysphoric youth, and roughly the same level supports allowing trans people to serve in the military. Additionally, while most people don’t approve of discussing gender identity in elementary school, they are more open to it in middle school and much more supportive in high school.
There are numerous other issues on which the public is less divided or the parties’ coalitions are less united than we might expect, including immigration policy, gun laws, climate change, and crime and policing. But part of the difficulty in finding consensus or pursuing meaningful solutions to these pressing issues is getting both sides to drop their distorted perceptions of each other and build trust—to understand that most people in the other camp don’t hold the most extreme views associated with that side and may actually hold a nuanced mix of views.
For example, some gun owners support reforms to the laws governing firearms. However, they’ll be less likely to prioritize them as a voting issue if they fear that their opponents won’t simply stop with a few new regulations but instead keep pushing for all guns to be banned. Similarly, the trans community and their allies may be less likely to express an openness to limiting some medical interventions for minors if they fear it could open the door for their opponents to ban all gender-affirming care. We can also see this in the debate over whether the country should have more or fewer abortion restrictions—both sides fear that if they give an inch, the other will take a mile.
Political scientists, sociologists, and others have written extensively about how the country can best try to repair itself and alleviate the more destructive effects of our polarization, be it political, cultural, racial, educational, or anything else. Restoring trust and reducing fear between America’s tribal factions is a necessary first step in that project, especially if we are to have any hope of holding our fragile democracy together. Perhaps a good starting place is encouraging Americans to recognize their own complex identities and political outlook. Maybe then they will come to see the same in their fellow citizens.
Michael Baharaeen is a DC-based political and election analyst. He is a native of Kansas City and writes the Checks and Balances newsletter on Substack.
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