protestors using bull horns to shout at each other

Splitting Apart: American Polarization, Part 1

This is part one of a two-part series on polarization in America. This post focuses on Americans’ views on, and roles in, polarization. Part two addresses the systemic causes of polarization that result from our country’s political structure.

School shootings? Check. Pandemic? Check. Insurrection? Check. In America 2022, just about every issue is a partisan one. 

According to a July Axios/Ipsos poll, Americans think politics act as a bigger social wedge than race or religion. The poll also found that the majority of Americans are not confident that we, as a country, can reconcile our differences in the next five years. 

Events that may have united the country at one time have only led to further polarization in recent years. After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a 2020 Gallup Poll found that 61% of Democrats said they always wore masks when outside their house compared to 24% of Republicans. Guidelines once viewed as critical public health measures became partisan talking points. 

Americans have also been divided over school shootings and the country’s best course of action to stop gun violence. In a June NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, 69% of Republicans said they would definitely vote for a candidate for Congress who wants to allow teachers to carry guns. Only 9% of Democrats said the same. On the other hand, 93% of Democrats said they’d vote for a candidate who backed stricter gun control laws while 28% of Republicans felt the same.

One thing both Democrats and Republicans DO agree on is an increasing lack of confidence in institutions – although not always the same ones. According to a July Gallup Poll, Americans are losing confidence in institutions such as the Supreme Court, big business, the presidency, and the media. Democrats show more than a double-digit loss of confidence in the Supreme Court, while Republicans have lost the most confidence in banks. 

Another area of agreement is concern about…polarization. In a June FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, polarization and extremism ranked third on a list of 20 top issues facing Americans. Only inflation and gun violence rated higher. And, while Democrats (33%) were more likely to name polarization as an issue, Republicans (23%) were also worried.

Yet despite this stated concern, Americans continue to consume news from media outlets that reinforce their partisan views. According to a YouGov Poll from April, the most politically polarizing media outlet is CNN. While 66% of Democrats rate CNN as trustworthy, only 11% of Republicans say the same. And while 53% of Republicans trust Fox News, only 19% of Democrats do. Pew has done a lot of work on media consumption and the strength of peoples’ level of partisanship while other research has shown that peoples’ choice of media is linked to their command of the facts.

So, we agree that polarization is a major issue. Do we agree on who’s responsible? Sort of.

According to a June FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, 84% of Americans said political polarization is mostly driven by politicians and political leaders with a tiny 3-point spread between Republicans and Democrats. Wealthy donors and social media placed second and third with majority bi-partisan agreement. Then we diverge. Nearly all (90%) Republicans blame “mainstream” media while a significant 71% of Democrats agree. Conversely, 81% of Democrats blame “conservative” media while 48% of Republicans say the same.

But, what about us? Don’t we bear any personal responsibility for our rapid partisanship? On this we agree. No. Just 22% listed “people in your community” – that’s us – as being any factor at all in why we are where we are.

Now, it’s important to note that political polarization is not a new phenomenon. Polarization has been growing in U.S. politics since the early 90s. One notable moment from that era was Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention in which he declared a “culture war for the soul of America.” Republicans lost the White House, but many believe Buchanan paved the way for Newt Gingrich to lead the GOP to the historic House victories in 1994.

But, if polarization has only grown over the past three decades, is there anything we can do to change it now?

Perhaps we stop labeling nearly everything as Democratic and Republican. For example, a 2012 study by Carlee Beth Hawkins and Brian Nosek shows that labeling policies as “Democrat” or “Republican” can influence support for ideas. Even if people agree with the general policy, they may oppose it if it appears to come from the other party.

For example, a 2018 study found that the majority of Republicans agree that climate change is happening. However, they were less likely to support policy solutions when presented as Democratic proposals. 

Although using less divisive language and labels seems simple, it may be a hard habit for Americans to break. This news may not seem productive, but it’s actually hopeful. 

While the country is divided, at least some of it may be the result of partisan bias and how we physiologically interpret identity and groups. In order to unite the country, three professors at Cambridge University have offered a list of simple solutions to start rebuilding the gap in America. 

First, more intergroup contact. If done correctly, research shows that getting to know each other can reduce prejudice between groups. However, the contact between two politically different people needs to be sustained so they can have a civilized exchange of ideas and learn from each other over time.

Second, gain the perspective of others unlike us. We all live in different places, hold different jobs, and lead different lives. While this is an important factor in making us who we are, researchers suggest that understanding the perspectives of others can decrease polarization and lead to more understanding. 

Finally, adopt a collective set of superior goals. Psychological literature found that identity-based conflicts require common goals to bring people back together. If we collectively share goals with the hopes of reaching a better future, we will feel more inclined to bridge small differences along the way.

This last one has fairly recent precedent. Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” campaign created a shared sense of purpose around the goal of becoming “prouder, stronger, better.” That campaign helped Reagan win the largest electoral college landslide victory in American history.

Then, the country was swept off its feet again in 2008 when Barack Obama ran for president with his Hope campaign. The theme built on the idea that if we put aside our partisan differences, we could rebuild as a nation from the economic collapse. Obama won with 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173 votes – not a landslide by Reagan standards but a big win in our hyper-partisan era.

Americans agree polarization is bad and they place most of the blame on politicians. Yet, charismatic politicians like Reagan and Obama proved to unite the country with dreams of a better future. And, events like 9/11 brought the country together in ways few things other than war can. Perhaps it will take one of those two things – or both – to bring us together again.

Or maybe it’s time we look in the mirror and recognize our own responsibility for the polarization we so easily decry to pollsters.

This post was written by Marist Poll Media Team student Greta Stuckey. Photo credit: Jon Cherry/Getty Images