This current moment is not the first time the United States has been divided. The 1960s, the Industrial Revolution, and of course the Civil War are just a few examples of periods of sharp clashes. Yet while factors such as race, religion, and socioeconomic status continue to play a role in dividing us, as they have in the past, they now pale in comparison to the most potent divide: our politics. This year, Pew Research Center asked people across 17 advanced economies about the biggest driver of strong conflicts between people in their society. Political division was by far the most common response, outpacing racial, ethnic, and religious division not just in the United States but in 14 of the 17 countries surveyed.[i]
Americans are increasingly alarmed by the sense that the country is coming apart. Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service Battleground Poll finds “division in the country” to be the top concern of American voters.[ii] Are all Americans drifting toward opposing ends of the political spectrum? Is there nothing on which we agree? Our polarization today is best understood as a rising belief among Americans that the other political “team” presents a grave threat to their way of life—a threat so great that it justifies increasingly extreme action to stop it. Americans are increasingly convinced that the “other side” has both the intentions and capabilities to destroy the country. Troublingly, as Americans sort themselves increasingly into communities and spaces that are politically homogenous, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to cross paths with everyday Americans on the other side of the divide and see them as generally well-intentioned people who happen to have a different point of view.
In the past, polarization was more closely confined to the political elite. Congress has certainly grown more polarized over the years, with greater ideological alignment among partisans and sharp declines in cross-party voting in the era following the 1994 Gingrich Revolution.[iii]Yet during the 2000s, researchers were quick to point out that the near-extinction of moderates in Congress did not mean there were also fewer moderates in the electorate.[iv] Not anymore: In the last decade, polarization has seeped ever more into the way average Americans behave and vote.
Between 2004 and 2014, the ideological consistency of the parties increased substantially, with over nine in ten Republicans holding more conservative views than the median Democrat, and vice versa.[v] Additionally, split-ticket voting is down, as fewer Americans look beyond party labels when making their selection at the ballot box.[vi] While structural reforms are often aimed at depolarizing institutions like Congress or changing the incentives of elected leaders, this will not necessarily reverse the trend toward everyday people increasingly hostile to those of the other side.
Furthermore, polarization today is notprimarily about policy disagreement. Vigorous debate over what our government ought to do can be healthy for a democracy. As political theorist Robert Talisse has written, division around policies and ideas, or greater alignment within parties on sharper ideological lines, is not in and of itself a bad thing, noting that “some degree of political polarization is politically beneficial, as it enables citizens to discern more easily the differences between the major parties.” And while Republicans may increasingly identify as “conservative” or Democrats as “liberal,” the party coalitions still include voters with a wide range of views and appetites about policy. Few Americans cluster all the way at the political extremes, with a majority of Americans in surveys choosing a little from “Column A” and a little from “Column B” when constructing their worldview, oftentimes holding beliefs that may even seem contradictory.[vii]
Where Talisse sees the more pernicious problem is in what he terms “belief polarization,” described as “the cognitive phenomenon in which interactions with like-minded people transform us into more extreme versions of ourselves.”[viii] This, unfortunately, is a much better description of what we are experiencing—polarization driven by fear of the other side and increased animosity toward the people of the other “team.” As we sort ourselves ever more into ideologically homogeneous clusters— increasingly living near those with whom we agree, consuming media that aligns with our own worldview, and so on—we are less likely to encounter those with whom we disagree. This allows the other side to be more dramatically caricatured as a grave threat, and when under threat, people are more willing to justify extreme action either in defense or retribution.
Consider the last year of our politics alone. Just before the 2020 election, when voters were asked what would happen if their preferred candidate lost, 89 percent of Trump voters and 90 percent of Biden voters said it would cause “lasting harm” to the United States. A majority of Biden voters said they would not merely be “disappointed” but would be “angry” if Donald Trump won re-election, while a majority of voters overall—including 57 percent of Trump voters—said they “think about politics as a struggle between right and wrong.”[ix]
Even after the election, alarm about the other side remained intense. In February 2021, my firm conducted a survey asking voters to rate their level of concern around nearly two-dozen issues. For Democrats, the highest level of extreme concern was not around issues like climate change or economic inequality or even COVID-19. The biggest concern for Democrats were “Donald Trump’s supporters.” [x] At the same time, CBS News conducted research finding 57 percent of Republicans viewed Democrats as “enemies” rather than “political opponents.”[xi]
For those in the foreign policy or national security arena, I think it is useful to consider rising tensions in the same way we might try to assess the level of threat another nation poses to the United States. Trying to judge whether an adversary is a threat requires accurately assessing their capabilities and intentions. Misjudging capabilities and intentions can make it more likely that conflict escalates unnecessarily. And in a world where the two sides interact less and less, the opportunity for such misjudgment rises.
When it comes to assessing the other parties’ intentions, there is ample evidence that Americans ascribe negative motives to those on the other side. Polling has found that Republicans and Democrats alike tend to view the other side as “brainwashed” or purely self-interested rather than acting on sincerely held beliefs about what is best for the country.[xii] And when evaluating the other party’s capabilities compared to their own, most view their own side as weak and ineffectual in contrast to an opponent who is powerful and willing to do whatever it takes to win, as partisans are generally well acquainted with the limits of their own sides’ power.
First, consider how Democrats view Republicans in this day and age. Most Democrats were “afraid” of the Republican Party even before Donald Trump was President, including seven in ten among the most highly political engaged Democrats.[xiii] Three-quarters of Democrats believe Republicans are closed-minded.[xiv] Ask a Democrat to describe the average Republican, and they are likely to say Republicans are anti-democratic authoritarians who lack empathy and hold retrograde views about race, gender, and sexual identity. Furthermore, Democrats also generally believe Republicans have the capability to make good on their intentions. They think Republicans hold more political power and wield it more competently, as Republicans push forward and preserve their own agenda through state legislatures and a majority of Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court.
Now consider the view from the Republican side. Almost just as many Republicans were “afraid” of Democrats in the pre-Trump era. They increasingly view Democrats as being “immoral.” Today, they are most likely to say that they view politics as being more about survival of the country than about enacting good public policy.[xv] Ask a Republican to describe the average Democrat and they are likely to say Democrats are willing to cheat to drive Republicans out of power and are focused on eliminating the good things about American life in service of a progressive agenda. In terms of capabilities, Republicans point to Democratic control of Washington as well as the leftward drift or posture of most major American institutions. As the media, Hollywood, academia, tech, and even conventionally conservative institutions including some churches and parts of the business community begin to adopt ostensibly more progressive ideals, Republicans see “proof” that they are under siege on all fronts.
I expect many would find the negative description I just provided of their own party to be woefully hyperbolic but the portrayal of the other side to be fairly close to reality. “But that IS how Republicans are,” one might say as a Democrat, or vice versa. At the same time, they would likely disagree sharply with the view that their side is seeking or capable of dramatically reshaping or rolling back the “American way of life” or willing to circumvent our democratic system to achieve their ends.
This is part of what makes depolarization so challenging: Partisans believe their own side is not the root of the problem and is waiting for the other side to disarm first. (Consider that when people tell pollsters that they want more unity and bipartisanship, what they are usually saying is that they would like the other side to make concessions and compromise toward their side.) “Affective polarization”” is the measure of how much more negatively someone feels about the other party compared to their view of their own, and this trend has worsened significantly in the last five years among both Democrats and Republicans. Even more troubling, this phenomenon is trickling down to the views of partisans’ children, who are increasingly adopting their parents’ hostility toward the other side.[xvi]
There will be no easy answers to the challenge of our moment. There have been plenty of proposals for structural and institutional reforms that would alter how American democracy works, from ideas like ranked-choice voting to redistricting reform and more. Such proposals have been touted as possible remedies to pieces of the problems our democracy faces. But while reforms like ranked-choice voting or new congressional district lines might work to depolarize an institution like Congress, it would not necessarily persuade Americans of different parties to view one another as less of a threat. The belief that the other half of the country is comprised of immoral or closed-minded enemies with a great deal of power is a challenging belief to uproot, especially when it is continually reinforced by lack of positive exposure to those of the “enemy” camp.
Thankfully, there may be a path forward. In the lead up to the 2020 election, political scientists David Broockman and Josh Kalla conducted an experiment where they had progressive activists contact conservative voters in Tennessee about the issue of immigration. In the study, rather than surveying the voters, Broockman and Kalla studied the views of the activists themselves. The activists were instructed to listen to the views of the voters they contacted, and at the end of the project they found a measurable decline in affective polarization. The activists had not become less progressive or changed their views on immigration, but were better able to articulate why someone might hold a different view, and felt less negatively toward the other side as a result.[xvii]
If we are looking for a way to begin repairing our civic fabric and shoring up the arenas of American life that are untainted by politics, then ensuring increased interaction and fellowship between people of different political views is a potentially good place to start. As simple as it may sound, creating more opportunities for people to listen to their adversaries, to become better at putting themselves in their shoes, may be a first step forward.
[i]Laura Silver, Janell Fetterolf and Aidan Connaughton, “Diversity and Divisions in Advanced Economies, Pew Research Center, October 13, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/10/13/diversity-and-division-in-advanced-economies/.
[ii]“New Poll: Voters Rate Political Division As Top Issue Facing The Nation,” Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service, June 15, 2021, https://politics.georgetown.edu/2021/06/15/new-poll-georgetown-institute-of-politics-and-public-service-releases-june-2021-battleground-poll/
[iii]Clio Andris, David Lee, Marcus J. Hamilton, Mauro Martino, Christian E. Gunning, John Armisted Selden, “The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives,” April 21, 2015, PLoS ONE 10(4): e0123507. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0123507
[iv]Richard Walker, “Political Polarization – a Dispatch from the Scholarly Front Lines,” Issues in Governance Studies, December 2006, The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/20061208.pdf
[v]“Political Polarization in the American Public”, Pew Research Center, June 2014, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/06/6-12-2014-Political-Polarization-Release.pdf
[vi]Nathaniel Rakich and Ryan Best. “There Wasn’t That Much Split-Ticket Voting in 2020.” FiveThirtyEight, December 2, 2020,https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/there-wasnt-that-much-split-ticket-voting-in-2020/
[vii]“The Four Quadrants of American Voters,” Echelon Insights, June 2021, https://echeloninsights.com/in-the-news/june-omnibus-quadrants/
[viii]Robert B. Talisse, “The Polarization Dynamic,” Discourse, January 26, 2021, https://www.discoursemagazine.com/ideas/2021/01/26/the-polarization-dynamic/
[ix]“Amid Campaign Turmoil, Biden Holds Wide Leads on Coronavirus, Unifying the Country,” Pew Research Center, October 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2020/10/PP_2020.10.08_Election-and-Voter-Attitudes_FINAL.pdf
[x]“Party Concerns and Candidate Qualities,” Echelon Insights, February 2021, https://echeloninsights.com/in-the-news/february-omnibus-party-concerns/
[xi]Anthony Salvanto et al. “Majority favor conviction as impeachment trial begins, but many Republicans urge loyalty to Trump – CBS News Poll,” CBS News, February 9, 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/impeachment-trial-trump-conviction-opinion-poll/
[xii]Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman. “Americans not only divided, but baffled by what motivates their opponents.” McCourtney Institute at Penn State University Polling Report, November 2018, https://democracy.psu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2020/08/Poll-Report-November-2018.pdf
[xiii]“Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016,” Pew Research Center, June 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/
[xiv]“Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal” Pew Research Center, October 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2019/10/10-10-19-Parties-report.pdf
[xv]“Post-Election Divides & Impeachment,” Echelon Insights, January 2021, https://echeloninsights.com/in-the-news/january-omnibus-impeachment-election/
[xvi]Shanto Iyengar and Matthew Tyler. “Learning to Dislike Your Opponents: Political Socialization in the Era of Polarization,” October 8, 2021, Working Paper Under Review, https://www.dropbox.com/s/5go8ja05l9vwhfx/Socialization_and_Polarization_maintext.pdf?dl=0#
[xvii]Joshua Kalla and David Broockman, “Voter Outreach Campaigns Can Reduce Affective Polarization Among Implementing Political Activists,” OSF Preprints, June 18, 2021. doi:10.31219/osf.io/5yahr.