There’s only one thing that all Americans seem to agree on these days: that their politics have grown more contentious and contemptuous than at any point in recent memory. From Saturday Night Live skits to morning television panels to shock-jock radio rants, the mutual dislike across partisan lines seems all-encompassing.
Before any attempt is made to minimize the divide, it’s important to acknowledge how real and profound it has become. Democrats and Republicans have been drifting apart for two generations, long before the centrifugal effects of cable news echo chambers and social media algorithms entered the mix.
The “Big Sort,” the phenomenon of Americans slowly but steadily moving to places populated by like-minded voters, has continued unabated. Since the 1980s, more and more of America’s 3,000-plus counties have leaned toward one political camp or the other by ever-growing landslides. A 2016 study in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers found that in counties where Democrats are winning it’s by ever-growing margins, and where they’re a minority, they’re a shrinking one.
Americans also feel more threatened by the other side than they once did.
Pew has been asking Americans if “it really matters who wins the presidential election” for the past six races. In 2000, about 50 percent said it mattered. In 2004, 67% said it mattered. By 2016 it was 74%. This year it’s 83%. Four in five Americans now believe something vital is at stake in the presidential race.
No wonder that the same study found that just 8% of Americans think both candidates would make good presidents; in the 2012 election the figure was 24%.
That anxiety about what the other side might do once in power is a key reason for the incredible stability in Donald Trump’s approval rating, even though a July study found at least 25% of his supporters express concern over his temperament. Something is keeping them at his side, something powerful enough to render those concerns irrelevant.
All these signals suggest the divide cleaving America in two is a fundamental one that won’t be quickly or easily overcome.
The big, harassed center
But there are other signals about this divided nation, which urge a more nuanced and optimistic understanding of the polarization crisis.
Yes, Americans no longer live near or socialize with voters from the other side – or at least do those things less than in the past. And yes, they’re more likely to see the other side as a threat.
But they’re also more likely to feel that the growing partisanship doesn’t represent them.
Political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan of Stony Brook University have identified what they call an “attention divide” that cuts across partisan lines.
They asked Americans (before the COVID pandemic struck) about their level of political engagement, and found “that most Americans — upward of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all. Just 15 percent to 20 percent follow it closely,” they wrote in the New York Times last month, summarizing their findings.
But that’s not all. The gap between the attentive and the inattentive has substance. The researchers asked respondents to rank various hot-button political issues according to their importance – and uncovered a profound gap in priorities between the engaged minority and the less-engaged majority.
For example, one of the most worrying issues named by “less-attentive Republicans” was the divide between Democrats and Republicans, a problem scarcely mentioned by the more fervent members of their camp.
Meanwhile, engaged Democrats were deeply worried about the influence of money and interest groups in politics. Not so unengaged Democrats, who were instead “25 percentage points more likely to name moral decline as an important problem facing the country — a problem partisan Democrats never even mention.”
The large center also has some shared concerns: both Republicans and Democrats of the less-engaged variety named low hourly wages as “one of the most important problems facing the country,” the researchers found. “But for hard partisans, the issue barely registers.”
The “attention divide” is a valuable antidote to the usual fretting about polarization. There remains, despite the pressures of the “Big Sort,” Facebook algorithms and cable news, a middle-ground America unimpressed by the frenetic politicking of the two camps that dominate the public debate.
Indeed, the existence of the “politically indifferent” helps explain the sense of growing divisiveness: each side’s unengaged view the other side’s loudest adherents as representative.
“When a Democrat imagines a Republican,” Krupnikov and Ryan write, “she is not imagining a co-worker who mostly posts cat pictures and happens to vote differently; she is more likely imagining a co-worker she had to mute on Facebook because the Trump posts became too hard to bear.”
That cognitive bias — associating the most “Republican” of acquaintances as representative of Republicans generally — may be why a separate study involving the same researchers found just 27% of respondents saying that they personally discussed politics frequently, but 70% saying that constantly talking about politics was typical of the other side.
Social media has been shown beyond a shadow of a doubt to be driving polarization and sustaining political echo chambers of the like-minded. But alas, America didn’t need social media algorithms to reach its present state.
In fact, a study described in the Washington Post last week examined whether Americans who used Facebook believed that Donald Trump had kept his campaign promises from 2016. The study found little difference in views on Trump between those “who see a lot of politics in their feeds” and those “whose connections (and followed pages) rarely post political content on Facebook.” Acquiring their political information on Facebook didn’t seem to make them more partisan.
But if social media has relatively little effect on whether an American believes their president, then either social media does not, in fact, create those much-maligned political echo chambers (spoiler: it does; the phenomenon has been studied in depth), or the echo chambers were already so entrenched and views so polarized that social media algorithms had little opportunity to make them worse.
In the end, a coherent picture of the American political psyche emerges from all this data.
Similarly-minded Americans are moving closer to each other, seeking out the shared cultural environments and lifestyles that correlate closely with their political commitments.
As they encounter fewer of the opposing camp’s moderate and less-engaged members, they’ve increasingly come to view the loudest and most threatening ones as representative.
Inevitably, political campaigns have sought to reinforce these trends — both because campaigns are made up of the most partisan and engaged members of each camp and because they have an overpowering electoral interest to move as many Americans as they can from the “indifferent” column to the engaged partisan column. Political campaigns thus depict the other side as a dire threat, stoke moral panic, and end up drowning out the distinctive and widely-held views, priorities and needs of the non-mobilized center.
American political discourse has grown saturated with these divisive messages, and no wonder. The Center for Responsive Politics has put the total outlay of the 2020 campaigns at $14 billion, twice as much as the next-highest presidential election year: 2016. Spending on the presidential race alone rose from some $2.4 billion in 2016 to $6.6 billion this year. There is scarcely a Facebook account, Google ad spot, television station or supermarket tabloid that hasn’t been touched by the ubiquitous campaigning.
America isn’t falling apart. No region is likely to secede from the rest and launch a second civil war. The violence so many expect after the election, if it comes, will be short-lived.
But Americans have forgotten how to speak to each other. They have lost the channels through which they once engaged easily and automatically with the other side, from neighbors who voted differently to a shared television news ecosystem that forged a common vocabulary in public affairs.
The blue-red divide is real and growing, but is sustained less by unbridgeable gaps of fundamental interests than by the many structural obstacles that prevent the citizens of this iconic democracy from communicating with each other in sustained and meaningful ways.
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