One thing that readers (and I) remark on again and again on this site is the remarkable political polarization among Americans. To me it looks as if the country is more divided at any time during my life, with the possible exception of the divisions about civil rights and the Vietnam War in my youth. But now it looks as if the division affects almost every issue: gun control, abortions, fealty to political parties, trans issues, censorship and free speech. . . the list is very long.
But at the Substack site Persuasion, Michael Baharaeen, political research director at the research consulting firm Blue Compass Strategies, argues that the divisiveness is more imaginary than real, and gives a lot of data trying to show that Americans are generally in agreement on many issues. I’m not sure that he makes his case, though we already know that on issues like abortion, American are far more united (in support of the Roe v. Wade principles) than, say, the Supreme Court.
Click to read, and note that he says that much of America’s political divide is an illusion, not all of it. But his aim is clear: to help us see that we’re not as bad off as we think:
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.
. . . 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.
But of course “complex identities” does not mean “political agreement”. Click to read:
I’ll single out a few of the issues where, Baharaeen says, we’re more in consensus than we think. I’ve indented his statements.
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.
Yes, but when it comes to filling in the circles on your Presidential ballot, diversity of thought and life experience is distilled into one black dot. And the number of those black dots on right and left have been perilously close in number in the last two elections, causing the last one to be followed by an insurrection. “Somewhat” conservative voters, for example, often voted for Trump, an action that certainly feels divisive to me. For there’s no way in hell that I can see a rational person voting for him over Biden in the last election. (My fears have, of course, been borne out.)
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.
Well, the marriage battle was won long ago, in Loving v. Virginia. But it’s still Republican lawmakers who gerrymander states to keep black voters from expressing their will, something so egregious that the Supreme Court just overturned it. This shows the problem with Baharaeen’s thesis: while average Americans may be more moderate than we think, the people who get into power are not as moderate. Even Biden, I think, is more to the left than many Democrats (and I’m one of them) thought.
Here’s a fairly accurate statement:
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.
That has been shown in several surveys. It’s only the extreme Left “progressives” (I put them in quotes because they’re really authoritarian regressives) who are strongly in favor of affirmative action. But those are also the loudest ones. I’m to the left-center on this issue, thinking that we need affirmative action of some sort, but a brand based not on race but on class.
What should be taught in schools.
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.
Yes, but this consensus has not stopped states like Florida from banning certain topics like CRT, and states like California from being embroiled in exactly HOW the history of bigotry should be taught. The problem again is that beliefs may be closer together than we thought, but when it comes to voting or infighting, political extremists hold the field.
Abortion rights. Here’s one where we already know the data; most Americans do not align with the “allow no abortion” states but with the previous law limned in Roe v. Wade. But again, it’s the courts, political extremists and politicians that enforce the divisiveness,
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.
Sadly, this hasn’t played out in the law, As we know, the laws of many states now totally repudiate the principles of Roe v. Wade.
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.
I think this is a wee bit misleading, for the controversy is not so much about general rights of transgender people, but about sports and “women’s spaces” like prisons and battered women’s shelters. That (and “drag queen story hour”) is where the battle is joined, and it’s a vicious and persistent battle, with gender extremists labeling everyone who doesn’t adhere to their views (e.g., J. K. Rowling) as “transphobes”. Even the Biden administration appears to hold the view that transgender women should be allowed to compete in sports with biological women. This issue will only get more polarizing as the number of trans people increases, as it’s doing exponentially.
In the end, Baharaeen has a point: if you poll individual Americans, their views (especially on things like abortion) aren’t as polarized as we may think. But remember that it the most extreme people who not only make the most noise, but who are the most eager to vote and, to some extent, go into politics. In a nation where Trump got 46.1% of the popular vote, beating Hillary Clinton, who got 48.2% of the popular vote, in the electoral college; or where in the 2020 election Trump got 46.8% of the popular vote, losing to Biden, who got 51.3% of the popular vote, I can’t say that polarization is overrated. By then Trump had shown that he was a dangerous and mentally ill autocrat, and yet still nearly half of Americans voted for him. As I said, regardless of your feelings on abortion or trans rights, in the ballot box you have to fill in either the Trump or the Biden circle. And once that happens, the nature of Donald Trump guarantees a long period of polarization, regardless of who wins.
CODA: Here’s the beginning of Jamelle Bouie’s column in the NYT today, “Republicans have made their choice.”
In the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, Republican officeholders had three choices.
They could stick with and defend Donald Trump and his riotous allies, and if they were members of the House or Senate, they could vote in support of the effort to overturn the results of the election, in a show of loyalty to the president and, in effect, the rioters.
Or they could criticize and condemn the president as conservative dissenters, using their voices in an attempt to put the Republican Party back on a more traditional path.
Or they could leave. They could quit the party and thus show the full extent of their anger and revulsion.
But we know what actually happened. A few Republicans left and a few complained, but most remained loyal to the party and the president with nary a peep to make about the fact that Trump was willing to bring an end to constitutional government in the United States if it meant he could stay in office.
Now THAT is polarization!