Are Americans as divided as we think?

June 13, 2023 • 12:00 pm

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.

Party affiliation.

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.)

Racial justice

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.

Transgender issues.

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!

h/t: Lee

17 thoughts on “Are Americans as divided as we think?

  1. I’m too young to have voted in many presidential elections, but I always vote in local elections, and try to be as informed on issues as possible—voting has always required a bit of thought, weighing pros and cons (for full transparency, I have always been a registered independent, though I do vote pretty “blue”).

    But the 2020 election was the first time I genuinely felt like I had no choice in candidate; I could neither vote for Trump, nor risk voting for any third party candidate (who might better represent me) for fear of splitting the vote in Trump’s favor. I dropped my ballot off thinking to myself, “this doesn’t feel like democracy.”

    With a two major parties system, every issue will inevitably get simplified down to “red view vs. blue view”, and nuance will always be sacrificed to accomplish this. Party devotion, it would seem, often forces division where common ground might otherwise be found. Is the U.S. more politically divided than ever? Maybe, maybe not. But I cannot be the only one starting to feel trapped by the black and white (red and blue) conversations that dominate political discourse.

    1. As a long time libertarian, welcome to my world! (And with recent changes in the leadership of the Libertarian Party, I probably won’t vote for their candidate, either.)

      For those of us who are politically homeless, it would be great to have a None of The Above (NOTA) option that is binding. The LP does have that for their internal votes. Unfortunately, that will never be supported by either of the two incumbent parties.

    2. Not just a two party system but a first past the post system. It leaves everyone feeling ripped off.

  2. I’m inclined to agree with Baharaeen, that we are not as divided as it sometimes seems.

    The loudmouths are very divided. They always were. But social media are a kind of megaphone for the loudmouths, and that might be part of why things seem worse than they are.

  3. It seems from here in the UK that there are still many sensible, sociable, educated people in the USA, but there is also a very vocal ‘edge of sanity’ group that seem to crystalise around Trump and his ever shifting ideologies. When Barak Obama was president and previous to him, the general view from my friends and peer group was that the vast majority of Americans were educated, thoughtful and democratic people, despite having far too many guns. There were, of course, funny stereotypes; rednecks, hippies and gangs, but they were a tiny percentage. When Trump became president many views changed. Poorly educated, racist, opportunists seemed to crawl from every doorway. America and Trump in particular, became a laughing matter – if only it wern’t so serious. I stood in London very close to the giant inflatable ‘Baby Trump,’ which made a few flights while the Orange One was visiting the UK.
    I find it interesting how poorly the Democratic Party has exploited the shortcomings of Trump. If Trump wins again, the world will become and incredibly dangerous place.

    1. We shouldn’t be too smug here in the U.K. given that we had our own lying, cheating, law-breaking narcissist in Number 10 for three years. And he learned well from his American mentor. His response to the impending report on his deliberate misleading of Parliament by the Privileges Committee of the House of Commons has been straight out of the Trump playbook, claiming to be the victim of a witch-hunt and calling the Committee a kangaroo court.

      1. Not smug at all. Boris, the lying liar that lies, is almost as bad as The Donald. Our politics is going down the toilet too.

    2. [Can someone tell me what “Nonce verification failed” means?]

      OK…”…despite having far too many guns.”

      Yes, right up until there are far too few. An ounce of history:

      The temptation, especially here in the U.S., where oceans separate us from SOME–but not all–bad actors, is to claim that “it can’t happen here.” I offer Karl Jaspers:

      ”Everywhere in the world I dread that same self-deception which holds that ‘it can’t happen here.’ It can happen anywhere. It becomes unlikely only where the mass of the population is aware of the threat, where there is accordingly no relapse into lethargy, where the character of ‘totalitarianism’ is known and recognized from its very inception and in each of its aspects-as a Proteus which is constantly putting on new masks, which glides out of your grasp like an eel, which does the opposite of what it claims, which perverts the meaning of its words, which speaks, not to impart information, but to hypnotize, divert attention, insinuate, intimidate, dupe, which exploits and produces every type of fear, which promises security while destroying it completely.”

      The harder search is to find places where it hasn’t happened. We may yet regret the unilateral disarmament by progressives in the face of the MAGAts’ firepower. (And maybe not, of course, if Baharaeen is correct. But as I recall, playing the Eloi to the Morlocks didn’t work out too well for the Eloi.)

  4. Speaking of the divided USA, here’s an interesting new book:

    * Petra Klug: Anti-Atheist Nation: Religion and Secularism in the United States (Routledge, 2023)

    “Atheists are a growing but marginalized group in the American religious patchwork and they have been the target of ridicule and discrimination throughout the nation’s history. This book is the first comprehensive study of anti-atheism in the United States. It traces anti-atheism through five centuries of American history from colonization to the era of Donald Trump and contemporary conspiracy ideologies, such as the atheist New World Order. Describing anti-atheist prejudices and explaining the social and psychological mechanisms behind anti-atheist attitudes, it will appeal to scholars of sociology, religious studies and history with interests in religion in the United States.”


  5. As a relatively old person I grew up and old on a basic set of ideas and rules. American History will show us all the crazy political positions and the actions of people within them. All the main positions between the two parties are set. All the discussion and wild stuff is from the extreme ideas in all parties. Really we waste most of our time on these extremes. Today the Republicans have gone off the rails and lost everything. They argue now among themselves and have thrown away most of their past. Everything is a contradiction on top of a lie. They believe in small government and states rights. Yet they want to control all of us wherever we live. They want no spending on the people but they love to reduce taxes on the rich. They want Freedom for all white people to vote and restrictions on everyone else. But that freedom for white people does not include half the population that are female. They want religion in government, just the opposite of our past. They are against public school and in favor of censorship. I do not see a future for this party.

  6. [Note: I tried to post this comment several hours ago, but for reasons unknown, it didn’t appear. So, please don’t post the original version.]

    For discussion purposes, let us say that Bahareen is correct: Americans are not nearly as divided as some in the media have argued. The vast chasm of political differences is an illusion. What Bahreen doesn’t realize is that this news may not be good news at all, but something quite horrifying. Why? Americans look at the elected political leaders and see radicals in each party, particularly in the Republicans Party, which has been taken over by extremists and authoritarians. How can it be that this happened if most Americans are moderate? The answer is that the American political system is profoundly sick. It is structured to allow radicals to gain political power and become the voice of the parties. Hence, the moderate majority of both parties come to view the other party as threats to American democracy, although only one party really is..

    Part of the reason for this situation is the primary system that allows party zealots to nominate the candidates. The zealots are more likely to vote in local elections, such as school boards. By sheer coincidence, earlier today I read a substack post by political scientist, Lee Drutman. He has posted an article entitled “The Paradoxical Reason Republicans Win Elections Despite Unpopular Policies.” He discusses a phenomenon called “The Ostrogorski Paradox,” something I had not heard of until a few hours ago. This paradox demonstrates that under certain conditions candidates that have views in opposition to those of the majority voters can still win elections. I won’t try to explain it (I had to read the article three times even though it is short), but it is worth taking a look at. It is a mind twister that reminded me of the Monty Hall problem.😊

    Bahareen concludes with this bit of wishful thinking:

    “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.“

    Of course, he doesn’t provide a way that this miraculous event can take place. Dutman provides a solution, but the chances of it ever being implemented seem remote to me.

    1. I believe what you have here is very good but the trick is to avoid the extremes. To control somehow the wild direction. This country managed to do that for 240 years or so but then basically let the right wing conservatives go Fascist. Exactly what happened in Germany in the 30s. In Italy before that. The only way to prevent it I think, is to recognize it and stop it before it gets baked in.

      Go all the way back to the beginning. It started in this country in 1790 with our new government. Hamilton came with a plan. He very quickly began implementing his plan and Jefferson and Madison flipped out. So did Adams. They had no idea what Hamilton was doing and it scared them to death. The party system was born and Jefferson/Madison lead the way. From then on they had to destroy Hamilton and even had to get Washington to do it. America has never been the same. Look who became the hero. Jefferson. He got a whole building in Washington. What did Hamilton get. A play on broadway – big deal. He was so far ahead of Jefferson, Madison, Adams and the rest they could not stand it. But in the long run — who was right. But the point is, the democrats and republicans decided they could live together until now.

    2. I’ve thought that some variety of ranked voting would help weed out the extremists on both sides.

      What does “CODA” mean, please?

  7. Well “us” vs. “them” has been a theme employed by the rich and powerful members of society throughout history. And now social media is the tool used to spread this theme, and technology companies reap the clickbait profits. I quit Facebook many years ago and Twitter more recently, simply because I was tired of being fed outrage. Since there is profit in divisiveness, you can be sure that is the media’s message. We are likely much less divided and more tolerant than is generally presented, but there isn’t much money to be made talking about that, is there?

  8. The expansion of primaries over the last 50 years or so & the consequent weakening of political parties are one of the main reasons we end up being represented by people who are farther to the right (or left) than most of their constituents. Primary voters tend to be more committed & more engaged than the average voter but they also tend to be more extreme in their views. When voters from the other side look at the nut jobs who make it through primaries I think this tends to make people believe the other side is crazier than it actually is.

    Adopting something like Alaska’s top-four ranked choice system is one way to mitigate the impact of the crazies on the process. Or just, y’know, saying eff the primaries—The Party decides.

    There’s nothing in the Constitution requiring us to continue torturing ourselves with our endless political cycles. It’s a self-inflicted wound & a fairly recent one at that. Prior to the late ‘60s/early ‘70s primaries were very insider baseball thing.

  9. The perception of polarization seems to be increased by the Leftist activists’ habit of responding to any criticism with a barrage of “X-phobic!” and “Y-ist!” accusations, trying to cast anyone not as far Left as them as a MAGA extremist. The responses to the education survey that Baharaeen linked to are encouraging. It’s good to see that if people can get past the doublespeak coming out of the far Left (people on the Right being much more open about their objectives), they do indeed find a lot of agreement at the political center. But the far Left agenda seems to be intentionally divisive in its effort to “dismantle” everything.

    There appears to be a large number of people who do not agree with the actual far Left agenda but who end up supporting it because they simply do not understand what is being pushed. The “progressives” have come up with a remarkably effective marketing strategy involving the “motte and bailey” tactic, gaslighting, ever-changing definitions of words, euphemisms such as “culturally responsive teaching”. (This – obfuscation – appears to be a major reason for the woke language that Jerry criticized recently.) Most people start out sympathetic due to compassion, but when they do find out what’s really going on, in contrast to the warm and fuzzy public verbiage, they rise up to stop it, whether Republican or Democrat. That’s about the only time we get a glimpse of true sentiment. From transgender influencing to outright pornographic books in elementary schools to how Critical Race Theory actually gets implemented (note: “implemented”, not “taught”!) in schools, the survey shows that most people are sensible and flatly reject what these things really amount to.

    If the general public was fully aware of what the “progressives” are promoting, Democrats who give lip service to or openly support such goals would not win another election. Yet many Dems keep campaigning on that stuff (and following up when in office), which is one reason so many people vote Red. Unfortunately, the Republicans are also throwing away an opportunity to reclaim the center and millions like me have no one to vote for. I agree with Historian and Graham that primaries are a big part of the problem.

    Maybe it’s time for everyone who is even somewhat moderate to register for the opposition party and vote in primaries for the most centrist candidate they can find. And not someone who can be pushed around as Biden obviously has been. Someone who has their own good principles and sticks to them. But where are such candidates?

    Even so, when media outlets constantly lie and mislead about what is happening and what the opposition is doing, polarization is going to appear to be extreme if not become so.

  10. On abortion, it used to be most abortions were restricted at 20-24 weeks, not 15 weeks! But, somewhere along the way 15 weeks seems to be the norm. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I don’t think that’s something that just happened, I think the forced birthers have a part in that.

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