It’s hyperbole to say, as some do these days, that America has never before been this divided. The nation was torn apart by a devastating Civil War more than 160 years ago, after all, and was torn again in the 1960s by social upheaval, civil strife and political assassinations. But it’s no exaggeration to suggest we’re more divided now than have been in probably 50 years — and those conflicts will be getting passed around the Thanksgiving table today along with the turkey and stuffing.
The scene will play out across countless American tables. The names and details will change, but the general plot will remain consistent: Uncle Fred asks for the green bean casserole and mentions that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election. Niece Amanda passes the dish, calls him a fascist, and chides her mother for not getting vaccinated. Cousin Andy says there’s a rally tomorrow to protest the county mask ordinance, and she plans to participate with a big sign. Her sister Claire makes a sound of exasperation from behind her mask, stands up shaking her head, and silently walks out of the house for some air. Young Bobby stares down at his phone, earphones blaring, blotting out the simmering exchanges he’s heard all year.
Rather than give in to the anger and indigestion, though, Thanksgiving would be a good time to remember that there are, in fact, still things that unite most Americans. Core values are, for the most part, still the nation’s core values: freedom, opportunity, equality, compassion. Americans’ arguments are mostly about how to achieve them.
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That’s easy to forget these days at acerbic political rallies and in chaotic school board meetings and in tension-filled family dining rooms all over the country. Polling confirms what anyone who’s been paying attention to the national conversation already knows: America has in some ways become two countries — two countries that don’t like each other very much.
A Pew Research Center poll during the 2020 presidential election pretty much said it all: By majorities of around 90% each, supporters of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden said that a victory by the opposing camp would not only be a negative outcome in terms of policy but would threaten “lasting harm” to America.
We’ve been headed here for a while. In his 2009 book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Apart,” journalist Bill Bishop used demographic data to show that Americans weren’t merely disagreeing on the big issues like taxes, guns and abortion, but were assertively grouping themselves by their politics — often literally picking up and moving to geographic areas where they would be among like-minded neighbors. “In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide” for one party or the other, Bishop reported. “By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties.”
Today, according to more recent data, that figure is near 60%.
The diametrically opposed and deeply divisive presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump both undoubtedly widened that chasm. We’ll leave it for another time to explore the question of what each of those presidents did or didn’t do to justify the fury from the opposing side, and just stipulate that the fury was everywhere.
Then came the pandemic.
The worst public health crisis to hit the world in a century was always going to be devastating to America, but political divisions have made it more devastating than it had to be. It’s never made sense that close to half the country would reject scientific expertise regarding vaccines and masks in dealing with the coronavirus — a rejection based, apparently, on little more than partisan politics — but there’s some validity to the criticism that those who support mainstream medicine have done a lousy job of selling it. Mandates may make sense from a strictly medical standpoint, but in a society that was already entrenched in opposing ideological camps, the case can be made that carrots would have been better than sticks.
So against this backdrop, where is the common ground that can keep the gravy on plates, instead of in one another’s faces?
For starters, the same polls that chart Americans’ deep divisions on specific issues — things like abortion rights, gun rights and pandemic policies — show that most Americans still do cling to some healthy notions of how their politics ideally should work.
In the aforementioned Pew polling, for example, 86% of Republicans and 89% of Democrats said that if their preferred presidential candidate was elected, that person should address the concerns of all Americans, even if it means disappointing the candidate’s core supporters. Those numbers indicate that the zealotry of those who seek to undermine voting access, or who embrace the bonkers notion of defunding the police, don’t represent most Americans’ thinking. The vast middle embraces at least the premise that country comes before ideology.
Americans agree on more specific issues as well. Health care may intractably divide Congress along party lines, but a poll by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation found that 8 in 10 Americans — including 61% of Republicans — believe government has a responsibility to ensure that health care is affordable.
While Americans might debate how should approach issues like the environment, education and race, we have some pretty consistent views about what the outcomes of those debates should be. A survey last year by Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights and Institute of Politics found that more than 80% of Americans agreed on the importance of such putatively controversial issues as ensuring clean air and water, protecting personal data, and providing quality education, racial equality, affordable health care, and employment.
If this all makes it sound like America’s politicians are more divided than most Americans are, there is evidence that’s true. An Economist/YouGov poll released this month found that less than 20% of Americans view the politics of the Democratic or Republican parties to be “about the same” as their own. Meanwhile, half or more of self-identified Democrats and Republicans each said their own parties’ politics didn’t completely align with their own.
In other words, regular Americans aren’t ideological slaves to two parties that both have moved toward the opposing extremes of the ideological spectrum. Party poobahs might not find that encaging, but everyone else should.
Not everything Americans agree upon is so positive. One poll out last week reports that almost 60% of respondents said their family members drink too much during family holiday gatherings.
On the other hand, given all this political tension these days, who can blame them?
As intractable as these disagreements might feel today, the outcome of controversies past can be instructive and encaging. Just in recent years, some gulfs that once seemed forever unbridgeable — regarding same-sex marriage, for example, or legalized marijuana — have closed to the point that they can no longer be defined as controversial.
And no matter what the polls say, does anyone really know someone in their families or social circles or workplaces who actually want to bring harm (“lasting” or otherwise) to America? For most of Americans — setting aside the knee-jerk combativeness that too often accompanies politics today — the answer is clearly no. That, at least, is something the nation can generally agree upon during this most American of holidays.