Hidden Common Ground: Why Americans aren't as divided on issues as we appear to be
Partisan animosity is undermining the ability of Americans to recognize common interests.
Americans already this year have shuddered at scenes of a violent insurrection inside the nation's Capitol and shared a sigh of relief as George Floyd's killer was convicted. Just how divided are we as a nation? To make sense of it all, it helps to distinguish ways in which Americans are becoming more polarized and ways in which they are not.
The rampaging mob of Jan. 6 is an extreme manifestation of a broader phenomenon, the recent rise in “affective polarization” (cross-partisan animosity). Research by Pew shows that between 2016 and 2019, Republicans who said that Democrats are “more immoral” than other Americans increased from 47% to 55%. For their part, Democrats who said the same about Republicans rose from 35% to 47%.
Similarly, Peter Levine has shown that the numbers of Republicans and Democrats who rated the other party at zero on a “feeling thermometer” (as negative as one’s feelings can get) increased substantially since 2000 to around 25% today.
In other words, extreme partisan animosity is high and getting higher.
Yet, when it comes to issues, as opposed to others, a great deal of agreement can still be found. A series of Hidden Common Ground surveys last year by Public Agenda, USA TODAY and Ipsos found strong cross-partisan support for raising the minimum wage, investing in infrastructure to create jobs, creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, and many other solutions. This common ground across party lines also held up across racial and other demographic categories.
The problem, then, is not that partisan animosity has obliterated all agreement on how to address pressing problems. Rather, it is undermining the ability of Americans to recognize common interests, deal with our differences productively, build broad-based coalitions, and work together to bring about needed change.
Efforts are underway to lessen affective polarization by, for example, tamping down disinformation and hate speech online, and by promoting constructive dialogue among people with different points of view.
Majority backs regulating social media
To inform such efforts, Public Agenda and USA TODAY conducted a new round of Hidden Common Ground research in which we asked the American people what they think will help move the country beyond destructive partisan divisiveness, which virtually all Americans agree is a huge problem.
Majorities across partisan lines support the kinds of efforts noted above. Almost 70% think government regulation of social media could mitigate partisan divisiveness. And about 80% think efforts to create dialogue among people with differing views and values can help bridge divisions.
To answer that call, Public Agenda and USA TODAY are partnering with America Talks, which will host one-on-one, video-based conversations the weekend of June 12-13 among Americans of different backgrounds and beliefs. This will kick off the fourth annual National Week of Conversation, June 14-20, which will include National Issues Forums focused on addressing polarization in our political system.
Super-majorities across partisan lines also want to teach children and adults constructive ways to talk about issues where conflicts are common.
The public’s perspective also goes well beyond such mitigating measures to address what they see as the deeper causes of divisiveness.
Eighty-four percent say that “giving ordinary people a greater voice in the decisions that affect their lives” would help, and 83% say the same about “improving economic opportunity and security for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, or where they live.” In both cases, supermajorities across partisan and racial lines support these measures.
Social tensions are exploited
It seems that we’re stuck in a vicious cycle in which partisan divisiveness makes it harder to tackle the big societal issues and injustices that create a breeding ground for destructive divisiveness in the first place — especially when “divisiveness entrepreneurs” amplify and exploit societal tensions for personal gain.
Our task, then, is to reverse the cycle by finding ways to dial back poisonous partisanship and then building on our common ground to attack big societal challenges, from the widening sense of political powerlessness to systemic racism to economic inequality.
In this way, we can stop wasting energy on political hatred and invest it instead in building a more just and effective democracy.
Will Friedman is a senior fellow at Public Agenda. David Schleifer is director of research and interim co-president at Public Agenda.