America is a divided nation, perhaps more so today than at any other time in recent history. This claim is echoed so frequently nowadays by political commentators, pundits, politicians, and reporters that it probably no longer even sounds all that remarkable. But it is, and we need to recognize it as such, because hyperpartisanship among voters poses a very serious and very real threat to our democracy.
By all accounts, the 2016 presidential race was bitterly contentious. According to a Monmouth University poll from back in September, most voters (70%) think this past year’s election brought out the worst in people. Moreover, 7% of voters say they even lost or ended a friendship because of the election (although this may not be an unusually high percentage compared to previous elections).
Of course, rancor and animosity are not new in American politics. But they certainly appear to have gotten worse in recent years.
According to the latest edition of the Pew Research Center’s study of partisanship and political animosity, which was conducted in early 2016 among 4,385 adults, Democrats and Republican are not only increasingly distrustful of one another, they are also now downright fearful of one another (see figures on the right):
For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger.
More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party [emphasis added]. Among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.
Pew also noted that partisan dislike has grown to such a degree that many Republicans and Democrats are more inclined today than ever before to view the policies of the opposing party as an actual, literal threat to the nation’s well-being:
Over the past two years, as the numbers of Republicans and Democrats with very unfavorable views of the opposing party have grown, so too have the shares saying the other party threatens the nation’s well-being: 45% of Republicans now view Democratic policies as a threat, up from 37% in 2014. And 41% of Democrats say the same about the Republican Party’s policies, an increase of 10 percentage points from two years ago [emphasis added].
In a recent article in the New York Times, Professors Sean Westwood of Dartmouth College and Shanto Iyengar of Stanford, described the problem in America today as one of “partisan tribalism,” or the tendency to regard political affiliation as a core part of one’s identity, much like gender, ethnicity, or race.
According to Westwood and Iyengar, many voters no longer regard each political party as merely a particular governing philosophy or collection of positions on key economic and social issues. Instead, they see their preferred political party as a team to root for and support – a tribe of which to be a member. And, from this perspective, democracy is a zero-sum game, with the strategic goal of ensuring that your team wins and the other team loses.
So, where did all of this partisanship and resulting distrust and animosity come from? And what can we do to combat it? Because we have to, if not for the sake of our democracy, then for the sake of preserving our relationships with friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues who don’t necessarily believe the same things we believe.
Although there are likely many complex and intertwining factors that contribute to hyperpartisanship in the electorate, experts point to recent changes in media – in particular, the rise of 24-hours cable news shows and social media combined with the relative decline in substantive print journalism – as perhaps being especially important.
When media outlets and news organizations conform to and adopt a particular partisan slant (e.g., Fox News caters to conservatives, whereas MSNBC caters to liberals), they create, intentionally or otherwise, enormous “echo chambers.” As a result, voters have little trouble finding information that confirms and supports their views and initial partisan biases. The same thing occurs when we choose only to follow others who share our political beliefs on Twitter and Facebook. When we lack exposure to opposing opinions and viewpoints, many of us will be inclined to dig in our heels on the issues and walk away even further convinced that our world view and opinions are the “correct” world view and opinions.
Moreover, as explained further here in a 2015 article in The American Interest, social media likely prioritizes political posturing over a more careful, thoughtful consideration of complex and substantive issues because it provides the ability to easily and immediately share and react to news stories before all the facts and analyses have yet been reported.
In Search of Common Ground
With all the distrust and animosity permeating American politics today, one wonders whether there remains any hope for voters and elected officials on opposite sides of the political spectrum to somehow find common ground.
Well, as it turns out, there might indeed be more that unites us as American than divides us. At least that’s the optimistic way to read the findings from a new report published earlier this week by Gallup.
In an analysis of a range of political issues, Gallup identified a broad collection where there is apparent agreement between voters living in states that went to Trump vs. Clinton this past election. For instance, the majority of voters in Trump states agree with the majority of voters in Clinton states when it comes to the high cost of healthcare, the threat posed by Iranian nuclear weapons, the role of foreign trade in economic growth, legalization of marijuana, and legalization of same-sex marriage (though there is a wide gap of 19 percentage points in the case of the latter).
Moreover, president-elect Trump’s signature proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border is actually opposed by a majority of voters in both Clinton states and Trump states.
The key findings from Gallop’s analysis are detailed below. At the top are the issues about which most voters disagreed this past election, and at the bottom are the issues about which most voters agreed. Note that the percentages alongside each issue reflect the number of voters in each category of state (i.e., Trump states vs. Clinton states) who agree with each issue or stance as it is written here. The difference between the two groups of voters is shown in parentheses.
Issues on which a majority of voters in Trump states DISAGREE with a majority voters in Clinton states (Trump states in red, Clinton states, including the District of Columbia, in blue).
- The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare): disapprove – 58% vs. 47% (11 pct points)
- Refugees trying to enter Europe and N. America: critical threat to U.S. vital interests – 58% vs. 44% (14 pct points)
- Importance of own religion: very important – 57% vs. 44% (13 pct points)
- Climate change: not a critical threat – 54% vs. 41% (13 pct points)
- Government regulation of business: too much – 52% vs. 40% (12 pct points)
- “Pro-life” on Abortion – 51% vs. 37% (14 pct points)
- The government should promote “traditional values” – 51% vs. 38% (13 pct points)
- The government should not favor any values – 46% vs. 56% (10 pct points)
- “Pro-choice” on Abortion – 40% vs. 58% (18 pct points)
Issues on which a majority of voters in Trump states AGREE with a majority of voters in Clinton states (Trump states in red, Clinton states, including the District of Columbia, in blue).
- Cost of healthcare: dissatisfied – 82% vs. 76% (6 pct points)
- Threat of Iran nuclear weapons: critical to vital U.S. interests – 78% vs. 72% (6 pct points)
- Important for U.S. to be No. 1 militarily – 71% vs. 60% (11 pct points)
- Position of U.S. in the world: dissatisfied – 69% vs. 55% (14 pct points)
- Make semi-automatic guns illegal: oppose – 68% vs. 51% (17 pct points)
- Build wall along entire Mexican border: oppose – 63% vs. 70% (7 pct points)
- Death penalty for murder: favor – 61% vs. 58% (3 pct points)
- Marijuana use: should be legal – 60% vs. 60% (0 pct points)
- View of federal government power: gov’t has too much – 60% vs. 57% (3 pct points)
- View of foreign trade: an opportunity for economic growth – 56% vs. 61% (5 pct points)
- Same-sex marriage: should be legal – 54% vs. 73% (19 pct points)
Where Do We Go From Here?
So, where do we go from here to repair some of the damage that’s been done to American politics over the past several decades? When talking with friends and family across the political aisle, should we entirely ignore issues on which we disagree and focus instead only on areas of agreement, such as – as suggested by the Gallup findings described above – our apparent shared love of capital punishment and semi-automatic assault weaponry? Well, maybe.
But perhaps a better approach would be to go right ahead and have those uncomfortable discussions and political disagreements and remind yourself (and anyone else who needs to hear it) that although you may disagree on a number of important issues, by and large we all agree on the same basic principles, goals, and priorities in life. Above all else, each of us wants to provide for his or her family and loved ones. Moreover, we all want to engage in meaningful work, feel as though we can voice our opinions without being harassed, secure our nation and communities from perceived threat, protect vulnerable populations of people from discrimination, and leave the world a safer and healthier place for future generations. In short, we all want the same things for the most part. It’s just that, oftentimes, we simply disagree about how best to achieve these mutually shared and important goals.
Importantly, this doesn’t mean we need to compromise our partisan values and priorities or let elected leaders off the hook when they support an agenda with which we disagree. It only means we should give our friends, family members, colleagues, and neighbors the benefit of the doubt when they support political candidates different from the ones we support. First and foremost, this is simply the decent, respectful thing to do. Secondly, it is also the practical thing to do, as it makes for better, smarter, and more efficient political activism.
To improve the political climate and discourse in our country, each of us should aspire to be a better practical activist. This means we need to be smart about how we choose to direct our political frustrations and anxieties and conserve our political outrage for when it really, truly matters. Arguing with a politician’s supporters is generally unhelpful because, for one thing, it rarely produces desired results. Even in the face of contradictory fact and evidence, people frequently choose to dig in their heels and remain fixed in their current beliefs rather than adopt a new viewpoint.
Targeting a political candidate’s supporters is also inefficient. Even if you are able to change a friend’s mind about who to vote for in an upcoming election, in the end all you’ll gain for your hard fought effort is a single additional vote for your preferred candidate. And although each vote matters, we are far more likely to bring about real meaningful change in our communities, states, and country when we direct the bulk of our (hopefully respectful) criticism toward elected officials instead. After all, they – not their supporters – are the ones who are in a position to bring about change most directly.
So, the next time you feel the urge to argue with someone who you feel voted “the wrong way,” remind yourself to be smart and efficient in how you choose to channel your frustrations. Then, grab your phone and call one of your representatives in Congress instead.
Brian Kurilla is a psychological scientist with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. You can follow Brian on Twitter @briankurilla