More that divides US than unites US

If you’re American (or particularly politically active), your Facebook page is probably littered with various reactions to the Supreme Court decision this morning. They likely fall into one of three categories:

  1. “Good news, because now people will be able to get health care!”
  2. “Bad news, because we could have done a lot better”

You may feel like the country is just getting more and more crazily polarized as people are seemingly unable to see political stories as anything besides good or the worst thing to ever happen ever. The United States constitution has been declared dead more times than Hosini Mubarak in the past few years, despite the fact that if the decision had gone the other way, exactly nobody who opposes the ACA would be lamenting the influence of “activist judges” or “judicial overreach”. That would be reserved for the proponents.

Well, apparently your instincts aren’t wrong:

It hardly took another study for people to know that political polarization in this country is deeply embedded. Still, a report issued Monday by the Pew Research Center paints a particularly stark portrait of a nation in which the most significant divisions are no longer based on race, class or sex but on political identity.

For 25 years, Pew has been conducting regular surveys assessing American values. They provide a series of historical benchmarks by which to examine the changes in what binds people and what divides them. The latest report finds considerable continuity over that quarter-century in the way different groups view society — and one very large change.


Republicans and Democrats have long seen the world through different lenses. On some issues, the gaps between them are relatively small (the importance of political engagement, for example). On others they are wider. What Pew found is that in almost every measure, those gaps have increased over the past 25 years, and in some cases now seem to represent almost unbridgeable divisions.

A graph showing the increasing partisan divide over time

So unlike other times where people proclaim that things are getting worse (like crime or abortion or taxes), it turns out that this is in fact one of those times where things did actually used to be better. There are a few things that I found surprising in this report:

Andrew Kohut, who directed the study, said two things are notable. One is that, “by and large, values haven’t changed. The other is that political identity has eclipsed these other factors” such as race and class as the biggest sources of division.

Like we saw in the Proposition 8 vote, race pales in comparison to party affiliation when it comes to predicting how people vote. I am surprised to see that racial and class divides are overpowered by this, as those had traditionally been the great dividers in American political life. Depressingly, of course, it is not that people have come together across racial and class lines; it’s that they’ve just started hating across the political aisles much more.

The thing that doesn’t surprise me at all is that it is attributable mostly to Republicans going absolutely insane:

A graph showing Republicans getting meaner over time

Far from it being a “plague on both (our) houses”, Republicans have begun deciding that “fuck you, pay me” is the way to run a society. So yeah… it doesn’t just seem that way.

So yeah, poke around the report. Lots of interesting stuff in there. If you uncover a finding that you think warrants further exploration, let me know in the comments!

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  1. julian says

    Thanks for this, even if it does confirm a lot fears I’ve been having about the US. Maybe I should learn German or Dutch…

  2. sivi_volk says

    “So unlike other times where people proclaim that things are getting worse (like crime or abortion or taxes), it turns out that this is in fact one of those times where things did actually used to be better.”

    How is this a bad thing, necessarily? It depends on which specific issues they’re divided on, and on many of these Americans are disquietingly unified (particularly on foreign policy).

    People are constantly pointing to political polarization as some kind of universal negative, but I think it’s a lot safer than universal agreement, since there seems to be a better than even chance much of the time that the thing people are agreeing on is not a good thing.

    I’d rather increased disagreement on social nets than a universal “fuck welfare queens” attitude.

    (As an aside, does anyone else find it weird that “Independents” fall between the two parties on a bunch of stuff?)

  3. wondering says

    I now have a burning need to see this cartoon, but regrettably, your link doesn’t work. 🙁

  4. jamessweet says

    One nitpick with Pew’s graphic: It says polarization is “worse than ever”, but the graph only shows that it’s the worst in 25 years. I don’t have data to support this hypothesis, but I suspect that it’s cyclical, and that while we are indeed at a peak of polarization, it’s not any worse than past peaks. I am guessing the most recent peak would be in the 60s, especially surrounding the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

  5. says

    Please, no; some of us are here in the South (and in the Bible Belt, where it diverges) fighting for the rights of people who are particularly marginalized here. Don’t abandon us to be Six Flags Over Jesus, because there are POC and queer folk and women and disabled folk and children and poor people (even the white ones who buy into the politics of resentment) and nonbelievers galore out here who are genuinely angered every time you make it clear that you want to leave us out to dry. It’s hot and it’s a Republican hellhole, but it’s the hill that I’ve chosen to die on because everyone here deserves better. Please don’t do that. I’m very serious.

  6. KT says

    Wow, that explains a lot of the despair I feel these days.

    @sivi_volk: It’s not the disagreement that’s bad, IMO, it’s the drawing of the battle lines.

    The item about political identity trumping values reads to me like people are basically accepting a party platform hook, line and sinker as opposed to hashing out their own feelings about the separate issues. Which means you get partisanship rather than honest disagreement.

    I’ve always been liberal while my family is mainly conservative. When I was growing up though, I never felt this was such an issue. We were fairly lighthearted about our differences and would argue, but also make jokes about it. For instance my grandma once left a picture of Rush Limbaugh “autographed” with a big heart on it on my bed, stuff like that. Despite our differences we could quite easily discuss our views and even find areas where we agreed.

    Now I feel like people of different political viewpoints are made to see each other as enemies and the rhetoric frames it as a war. This “winner take all” attitude is an extreme barrier to anything productive happening whatsoever and doesn’t allow for consensus building or sussing out issues that can gain majority support regardless of political identification.

  7. Jack says

    This blog post itself is perfect evidence of political polarity and why it is getting worse. Look at the interpretation of the different points of view in the beginning of the article. In reality, if you were to interpret the opinions without being ignorant to those which are contrary to your view they would be:
    1) This bill is good because it expands accessibility to healthcare insurance for many people
    2) This bill is good but could use improvement
    3) This bill is bad because the expansion of medicare and medicaid is very expensive, and is being funded by government debt — it is irresponsible/bad to increase such debt/spending even if it would expand accessibility to healthcare insurance for many people
    4) This bill is bad because it gives the federal government the power to force people to purchase a good. The federal government should not be granted such a right.

    This blog post ignores views/reactions 3 and 4 and replaces them with the ignorant ““GOODBYE DEMOCRACY AND AMERICAN FREEDOM! SOCIALIST OBAMA IS A MARXIST ANTICHRIST!””

    I’m not surprised political views are so “crazily polarized”, Democrats like the author of this post make themselves and others ignorant to the views of Republicans and Republicans similarly remain ignorant of the views of Democrats. So, naturally, it is impossible for the two to understand each other’s opinions and find a common ground.

  8. says

    Two things: first, I am not a Democrat. I’m a Canadian.

    Second, I understand the Republican position quite well. The problem ism’t a lack of understanding of what our opponents think, it’s that our opponents are stupid and blind to their own hypocrisy. Republicans looooved this idea until it was proposed by a Democrat, and then it became the death of the Constitution.

    This “both sides are equally wrong” argument is the very steamiest of bullshit.

  9. baal says

    In my fantasy future, our primary identities will be based on in/out group neutral details like whether or not we like to swim or play musical instruments rather than political or movement or tribal details.

    Sadly, we aren’t anywhere near that and are (as shown in the above report) moving the wrong direction. We need to keep calling out specific instances and trends that foster the polarization as part of the solution for the harms it causes.

    As said well by Robert Reich:

    The system is largely responsible for the greatest concentration of the nation’s income and wealth at the very top since the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century, with the richest 400 Americans owning as much as the bottom 150 million put together. And these multimillionaires and billionaires are now actively buying the 2012 election—and with it, American democracy.

    Until and unless the US (I’m a citizen) changes some fundamental institutional structures (to be say, more like Germany who has managed similar GDP growth overtime but with out the wealth concentration effect) we’re only going to get all the oligarchy that 40-50% of the US GDP can buy.

  10. leni says

    I know some of these gotta be jokes, but beware!

    Apparently there will soon be an influx of displaced Republican refugees to Canada. I suggest you implement the most stringent border control policy you Canadians can muster, but only apply it selectively to people who “look American”.

  11. Jack says

    If you understand the Republican position as well as you say you have intentionally misrepresented it. Straw-man fallacy at its finest.

  12. says

    Hyperbole and straw man aren’t actually the same thing. In order for this to be a straw man, I would have had to focus the bulk of my critique of the Republican position on refuting the hyperbolic argument, which is not at all what I did. I in fact didn’t even bother discussing their position, because it’s not relevant to the subject of the post.

    If you would like me to thoroughly refute the Republicans actual argument (aside from simply pointing out their deep and enduring hypocrisy in opposing a policy that they themselves came up with), I can do that. But I think you’d rather just complain about what an unfair meanie I am from atop your high horse, so I’ll leave it there.

  13. ik says

    Another issue, I think, is that the Right has become much more elimminationist over time even though the Left really seems to be loosing all distinguishing ideologies.

  14. Brandi says

    So, can I go hop in my car and plow down motorists all around my town without either having car insurance, or facing hell for it?


  15. Shplane says

    The more reprehensible you opponents become, the more advantageous it becomes to abandon specific stances. As the Republicans become more and more unsupportable, the Democrats have a distinct incentive to cast their net wider by adopting less definitive views. Why alienate all those potential new voters that are running away from the Official KKK Party by being a party of actual liberals, when you can catch everyone who isn’t a murderous asshole just by saying “Hey, we’re not those guys”?

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