Fareed Zakaria: why is the American public so divided?

May 9, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Reader Paul sent me a link a this remarkably clear and short (5½-minute) video showing Fareed Zakaria’s rational analysis of American secularism and political/religious division in the U.S. He begins with a surprising and distressing summary of the gap between the beliefs of Rightists and Leftists on questions such as the importance of being a Christian and the role of religion as essential in society. The gap between Left and Right in America is far higher than that of other European countries. We are a deeply polarized people.

But why? It’s not because we’re less globalized or have more immigration than other countries. Instead, Zakaria draws on the work of Ronald Inglehart, whose work on secularism has often been discussed in these pages. In fact, the U.S., once the most religious of First World countries, has in the last 13 years become markedly more secular—another trend I’ve documented.  Here’s a screenshot showing the change:

That’s good news! Inglehart notes the change to several factors, including the decline of group norms and group mechanisms of control, aas well as the “rise of individualism.” However, this secularization has been accompanied by increased polarization on political issues. (Note that this is a correlation that Zakaria assumes reflects a causation: “big changes are leading to big reactions.” I think he’s right in the main, but he should have issued a brief caveat.)

As Zakaria notes:

“All of this highlights a new reality: you cannot really understand America any more by looking at averages. It has become two countries. One is urban, more educated, multiracial, secular, and largely left of center; the other rural, less educated, religious, white, and largely right of center.”

He then calls attention to the well known “Inglehart-Welzel” cultural map that plots countries’ locations on a two-dimensional map of values (religious/secular on one axis/ survival/self-expression values on the other. Wikipedia shows it and says this:

The Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world is a scatter plot created by political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel based on the World Values Survey and European Values Survey. It depicts closely linked cultural values that vary between societies in two predominant dimensions: traditional versus secular-rational values on the vertical y-axis and survival versus self-expression values on the horizontal x-axis. Moving upward on this map reflects the shift from traditional values to secular-rational ones and moving rightward reflects the shift from survival values to self-expression values.

According to the authors: “These two dimensions explain more than 70 percent of the cross-national variance in a factor analysis of ten indicators—and each of these dimensions is strongly correlated with scores of other important orientations.”

Here’s that map from 2020 (click to enlarge), showing that the U.S.(I’ve added an arrow) is in the middle on religious values, but high in “self expression”. If it were less religious, it would move up to join the countries of “Protestant Europe”: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands.

Zakaria posits that if you divided America into two countries, one red and one blue, the blue part would probably move into the “Protestant Europe” group, while the red one would move closer to those of Nigeria and Saudia Arabia (in the grayishy “African-Islamic” set of values.  His question: “Can these two Americas find a way to work together and cooperate?” (I say “hell, no”.)  And that means, and here Zakaria has it right, a failure to cooperate means that the abortion battle “may be the precursor to even larger struggles.” My guess: yes it will. We’re in trouble. You can argue whether secularization is the ultimate cause (if so, it means that religion has been even more toxic than we think), but you can’t argue about the polarization.


Here’s the video of Zakaria’s take; he’s a remarkably smart cookie for a newsperson. Who else would know all this survey data and put it together into a provocative and coherent thesis?

42 thoughts on “Fareed Zakaria: why is the American public so divided?

  1. Fareed Zakaria is impressive. You get it from his analysis, as our host points out, but you can also see it by the quality of his guests on his weekly Global Public Square show and the high regard they have for Zakaria. If only more news shows were at that level.

  2. > In fact, the U.S. […] has in the last 13 years become markedly more secular […] this secularization has been accompanied by increased polarization on political issues.

    This mirrors something I’ve said before. The New Left and the New Right have a lot in common – not their views, but their techniques. The statement above is probably the first thing I have liked from the Left in a long while. The Right shifted to the New Right in with Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. The New Left evolved in the last 15 years largely as a reaction to their policies.

    It’s not that new secularization has increased the polarization; it has helped become a counterweight to the New Right’s solidified party unity and inflexibility.

  3. Let me underscore the following from our host: “His question: ‘Can these two Americas find a way to work together and cooperate?’ (I say ‘hell, no’.) And that means, and here Zakaria has it right, a failure to cooperate means that the abortion battle ‘may be the precursor to even larger struggles.’ My guess: yes it will. We’re in trouble.” And let me follow that by repeating what I’ve said before in this and other online forums: The two irreconcilable divisions of the USA must as consciously, intentionally, amicably, and peaceably as possible separate/divorce, or else we will be violently torn asunder. I’ve mentioned partitioning before. Perhaps, as suggested by the current abortion debate, we need to return to a type of federalism, at least as a transition to whatever forms of government the US will eventually and inevitably transmogrify into.

    1. You’re not wrong but if secularization continues its current trend, will the Right be able to sustain their side or will they evaporate? Perhaps we’ll start to see a big drift back to the Left.

      1. Yes, Paul, perhaps. Holding out this hope, let’s continue to model and promote secular humanism as the Weltanschauung most conducive to happiness.

    2. Let’s say there is widespread support to split the nation in two. Let’s call the nations the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. Will North Dakota and Mississippi be part of the Confederacy while Illinois will be an island in a sea of Confederate states? Which nation will claim Washington D.C.? Millions of people will want to move from one nation to the other. How will the defense establishment be divided up? What about all the interlocking economic connections be dissolved? Who would negotiate the splitting up of the country? Will the Constitution have to be amended to permit secession?

      In other words, there are multitudes of questions that will need to be answered before a dissolution, even a peaceful one, could take place. The questions I raised above are only a small number of the many questions that would arise It would take years, perhaps decades, before a separation could take place. I don’t think it will happen, even if there is wide sentiment for it. I think we are stuck with our sorry situation and there is no practical way out of it.

      1. One further point: assuming both new federations continue to have first-past-the-post systems, I suspect the same dynamic will continue. I think two-party systems with one crazy party drive the other party crazy, too (forgive the informality). What will happen is that CrazyLeft in LeftLand will force moderate LeftLandParty2 to be crazy, too – and the same will happen with moderate RightLandParty2. What we’ve learned from 30 years of Internet and reality television is that crazy sells. The leading US parties have learned how to game the system and dominate the news cycle by being as divisive and crazy as possible; the only way for new wannabe-moderate second parties to compete will be to do the same thing.

        The only way I think things could survive is by encouraging interstate pacts without requiring congressional approval. The term people use in the EU is ‘Multi-speed Europe’. At best, it will smooth a transition period to an American Velvet Divorce.


      2. I have considered and continue to consider your and similar questions, my esteemed friend. As I am mindful of Da Roolz, I won’t engage in a lengthy discussion here, other than to enlarge on your mention of Illinois above. I live in northeastern Illinois, and I will report that we here are preparing for an influx of Wisconsinites if Roe is overturned. Likewise, my fellow Illinoisans downstate are preparing for similar influxes from Indiana and Missouri. Willy-nilly, we in Illinois may very well test your idea of being an island in the Confederate sea.

        1. Is this true, Stephen? Or is it like all those folks who said they were going to move to Canada if Trump got elected in 2016? (Then they looked at our tax system and changed their minds.)
          Wouldn’t it make more sense for pregnant Wisconsinites just to visit Illinois for an abortion? Why would they need to move in?
          Surely house prices, rents, job/welfare market, tax rates, schools, amenities, crime, all the usual things that realtors learn about, weigh more heavily in the decision to uproot one’s family than the theoretical chance that someone might need an abortion some day.

          1. Forgive my inexact language, Leslie. I meant just what you said: Those from Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri or Kentucky would be coming here for abortions only, then returning to their home states. Indeed, this has been going on for a few years already, especially since Missouri restricted abortions to only one clinic in the state, that of Planned Parenthood in St. Louis. And that one will certainly close if Roe is overturned.

            1. Do you think we’ll see “Get Your Abortion Here! No Appointment Necessary!” billboards along the highway just inside the Illinois border? Probably have packages that include hotel stay. Perhaps Airbnb will have promotions. And this is probably just the beginning.

            2. Pardon me, Steven, for misunderstanding you. There was discussion about permanent moves between states and I jumped to the conclusion that you were referring to the same thing.

      3. Yes, partition is the express train to massive violence. Regional autonomy might avoid massive violence. I guess that could be a silver lining to losing Roe v Wade.

    3. If I were king and able to enact great measures that would deny oxygen to these deepening fractures, I would promote an influx of Americans from coastal cities –> more rural areas, shifting voting districts and even states from red to purple, and from purple to blue-ish purple. Many people are working online anyway.
      I would also do away with the mainly two-party system by introducing a robust 3rd party that is mainly centrist. This to encourage more centrist platforms, and to isolate the extremists on the right and left.
      I would also do away with the electoral college, at least in it present form.
      And major elections would be held either on a Saturday, or Election Day would be made into a holiday. Mail-in voting would be expanded, etc. etc.

      1. “If I were king and able to enact great measures that would deny oxygen to these deepening fractures, I would promote an influx of Americans from coastal cities –> more rural areas, shifting voting districts and even states from red to purple, and from purple to blue-ish purple.”

        It’s not scientific, but what I observe is exactly the opposite. I live in Idaho, one of the fastest growing areas in the US over the past ten years. Virtually everyone I know who has moved into the state is from large cities in California, Oregon or Washington. Their reason for moving is to escape what they feel are overly liberal policies there to a place that is much more conservative. So surprisingly, the urban areas in Idaho have been getting more conservative in recent years. Twenty years ago, it was the opposite.

        I do support your other two proposals though.

  4. Fareed Zakaria is correct that the US has become more secular and that there is a backlash. That backlash is due to Fox News.

    1. I was going to say that at least as far as the right has been contributing to polarization, Faux News and other such outlets seem to be a major cause. They fabricate, make sweeping and frankly dumb generalizations about “the left”, and meanwhile get $ from their advertisements. Great swaths from the right just fall for their schtick hook line and sinker.
      There is also polarization from social media in general. Both the L and the R stay in their own silos, engaging with members of their own tribe more often than not. I am typing a comment in one such web site right now 🤔.

  5. Indonesia and Kazakstan’s assignment as “African-Islamic”, and their placement near other ‘odd ducks’ Myanmar and India, tells me someone’s probably not thinking about that stretch of southern Asia correctly. Looks like they, along with Bangladesh, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, etc. could form their own (overlapping) group, which would be a “tall” oval with the y values going from 0 to about -1.2, but the x values being very narrow around -0.5 to -0.75.

    1. Not only that, the map has India in italics implying it’s “muslim majority.”

      One has to wonder at their surveying methods which ignored a billion+ hindus and other dharmics.

      1. This could have been a mistake, you know. Are you seriously questioning their “survey methods” based on what might be an error in italicization?

        Never mind; I see that you are.

    1. If we could get that Toledo-Sandusky corridor on board, looks like Yankeedom would be a contiguous country.

      That’d be enough to lure me back from the Spanish Caribbean for more frequent visits. 🙂

  6. Sometimes I think that the only solution for the US is the one described in China Mieville’s novel “The City & The City”, which “is set in one-inside-the-other cities that occupy the same geography yet contain two distinct cultures, each forbidden to interact with or even see the other.” (description borrowed from an Amazon reviewer)

    1. Fascinating, sounds right up my alley, thanks! I just downloaded a sample of the book on my Kindle.

  7. Per the cultural map, the US of A appears to be the vestigial tail of the Anglophone world.

    The religious know they’re losing this battle and will not go gentle into that good night.

  8. It’s interesting that, while the US is sharply divided culturally, the two sides seem to come together over the Ukraine war. It’s like the sci-fi movie where feuding nations come together to fight the alien invaders. Perhaps as time goes on, there will be existential threats (global warming?) against which we can finally all come together in a Kumbaya hug…as the sun sets over amber waves of grain. 🤨

  9. It seems to me that there are 2 factors that have caused the severe division we have in the US today.

    1) Religious belief, or at least commitment to organized religions, has been waning in the US for a long time, has been accelerating, and the religious know this. Religious leaders / organizations and individual believers are feeling as if their backs are too the wall and it’s fight or flight time.

    2) The Republican Party (and no other) has used number 1 as a tool to create the severe division we enjoy today. Not the only tool they’ve used, but a major one. The RP is in the same boat. They too are diminishing and their backs are against the wall too. The RP’s successful use of the religious as a tool to maintain their power has in turn made the death throes of religion, as one of the leading forces in our culture, more powerful than they otherwise would have.

    I think that if we can manage to survive the next 10 years that there will be some relatively quick changes for the better. My children could yet live in a better society than I did. But of course we could crash and burn too.

    1. What you are describing is a Republican Party whose constituent elements see a changing world that they cannot abide because it represents a diminution of their cultural power. The country they want to return to is the one they imagine existed in the 1950s and early 1960s where everybody lived in Mayberry – a southern town where Blacks were rarely seen and never spoke. In other words, the Republican Party is thoroughly reactionary and will not go down without a battle where the rules (the guardrails of democracy) do not exist. As you note the Republicans are desperate because for them more than money or economics are involved — their way of life is threatened. In their mindset, they are remarkably similar to the slaveholders in 1860.

      1. What is different about the actual Republican party from Mayberry RFD days and the party of today is that back then they pointedly thought that religion should play no part in politics.

      2. I think that’s pretty accurate. I don’t think their fears would have been nearly as strong if the RP had not purposely worked to stoke them for the past 25 + years.

    2. “But of course we could crash and burn too.”

      At least we’ll know in the next two election cycles if this scenario is likely to become true. I feel that right now I may be living the last good days as an American citizen. At least I live in a blue state. Do you ever feel like moving out of DeSantostan? I don’t know what I’d do if I lived in a red state and had resources to move. I don’t have kids, so that makes it a lot easier.

      1. I do sometimes feel like leaving. Not just this state, but the US. Other times I feel like fighting for the version of the US that I want to be. The reality though is that I’m pretty much stuck with just putting one foot in front of the other, one after another, day after day, and doing my best to be what I think a good person should be like.

  10. The irregular shapes of the color-clusters in the I-W map bespeak a certain arbitrariness. For example, the arbitrary “West and South Asia” yellow blob includes Israel, which is closer to Italy than any other members of the blob; and Vietnam, which is closer to Poland. Another way to cluster the
    countries might be the following. Draw a diagonal line from Singapore through Estonia, the Czech Republic. to Japan: everything to the right of that diagonal constitutes “modernity”. That cluster
    would just miss Hungary, and would just barely touch the USA, both about right.

  11. Mr. Zakaria is entrancing, but some of his claims….well. To the notion that Sweden has a larger foreign born population than US. US immigrants account for 13.7% of population, in Sweden the number (I also see another report that shows it to be 14.4%)


    Sweden is also c. 14%….btw, I encourage readers to search about to see what is going on in Malmo and elsewhere in Sweden with immigration.


    And most of all, that notion that the world is becoming more secular is silly. It is becoming less theistic, perhaps, but not less religious. It’s just that the “secular” are secular fundamentalists.

    1. Exactly. It’s perverse. They have long been so desperate for an effective champion that they will embrace a transparent imposter.

  12. Rurality is not so defining criterion as it may seem, at least not in the Northeast. The two most rural states in the country, Maine and Vermont, are both decidedly unreligious on balance and more liberal than most as well.

  13. Fareed noted a general turn away from religiosity starting around 2007.

    Dawkins The God Delusion was released the year before and became a world wide sensation.

    I know that of course The God Delusion wouldn’t have itself simply caused a move away from religion, but I also get the feeling that the influence of Dawkins and that period of “Four Horsemen”
    is undervalued. It really was a huge seismic shift, from what I could see, in both the public discussion of religion and the private. Before the New Atheist movement few people I knew ever even discussed religion. Ever since many people I know seems to have been comfortable declaring their atheism and stressing much stronger anti-religious opinions. I really do get the impression it was a wide ranging moment of change.

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