The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s partisan divide is greatly exaggerated

Yes, Americans have political differences. But their conflict is less vehement than it seems.

President Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol on March 1. (Saul Loeb/AP)
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It’s almost hard to remember now, but back in the early pandemic two years ago, Americans had a moment of unity. Even Congress, fresh off a bitter fight over impeachment (President Donald Trump’s first of two), managed to get together to pump trillions into a faltering economy as jobs disappeared overnight. As I wrote in my recent book on “the helpers” of the pandemic, neighbors sewed masks for neighbors; volunteers scrounged for hospital PPE; millions stayed home to keep others safe. Big bipartisan majorities agreed on strict measures to “flatten the curve.” But the arc of goodwill soon bent toward dysfunction, political fights erupted over masks and vaccines, and by last summer, according to Pew, Americans still overwhelmingly agreed on one thing: America was divided.

This is true but only in a narrow sense. America’s political parties are extremely divided, maybe even historically so. But Americans as a whole mostly just aren’t that engaged in politics, let alone to such an extent that they’re bickering with neighbors about the Cares Act. Those tribal hyper-partisans you see on social media, cable news, op-ed pages? They’re a small minority of the U.S. population. And even partisan divides — Republicans disliking Democrats and vice versa — are greatly exaggerated in the minds of partisans themselves.

It’s true that Democrats and Republicans have for years reported growing animosity toward members of the other party, and especially the other party’s politicians. In tandem with this, though, fewer and fewer people actually associate themselves with political parties at all, even if they consistently lean in one direction or another at the ballot box. A near-record proportion of American adults identified as independents when Gallup last measured this year — more people than identified as either Republicans or Democrats, a flight from parties that has accelerated in the past decade.

So the increasing polarization of Americans by party affiliation is occurring among a decreasing number of people; the rise of independents, and the decline of each party’s base, is a “probable contributing factor” in party polarization, Gallup senior editor Jeffrey M. Jones wrote. (This doesn’t mean independents are free of partisanship: Independents who lean Democrat or Republican are almost as likely as partisans to have an unfavorable view of the other party, according to Pew. On the other hand, independents, however they lean, are more likely to have a pox-on-both-your-houses attitude toward the parties than party members are.) Even within what’s arguably the most partisan sphere of our public life — social media — Pew found in fall 2020 surveys that 70 percent of adult social media users reported posting on “political or social issues” rarely or never, and that 10 percent of Twitter users create 92 percent of all content on the platform. Most users reported themselves to be “worn out” by politics.

Disentangling party affiliation from actual issues, moreover, many of the things that supposedly divide Americans are actually areas of widespread consensus. Americans’ well-publicized fights over vaccines and masks, for example obscure the large majorities that report themselves fully vaccinated (73 percent, per the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest); that say they still wear masks outside the home (68 percent, per Gallup); and that favor some vaccine mandates (59 percent in favor for federal employees, also per Gallup). On some of America’s most polarizing issues, far more Americans are in the center than at the poles — majorities believe abortion should be legal within limits; they think that police treat Black people less fairly than white people but overwhelmingly don’t support defunding the police; and a whopping two-thirds of Americans think immigration is generally a good thing for the country.

So why, when they actually agree on so much, do partisans report such dislike for the other side? The answer may, in part, be found in the fact that we overestimate the vehemence of our ostensible opponents. Victoria Parker, a political psychology researcher who has studied the phenomenon of “false polarization,” told me that partly because the extremes of left or right are what tend to make the news (or trend on social media), “that gives people the false impression that those characterizations are representative of either group.” Most Democrats, for example, do not support “defund the police”; most Republicans support same-sex marriage.

To take perhaps the most dramatic example of partisan misperceptions, a web-based study by the Stanford Polarization and Social Change Lab suggests that Democrats and Republicans overestimate one another’s support for political violence. “Both Democrats and Republicans thought the other side was 300-400 percent more supportive of political violence than they actually were,” said Joseph Mernyk, the lab’s research coordinator. The big takeaway, Mernyk said, was that participants’ support for political violence actually decreased when they learned that support from the rival party was low.

But even where partisanship is “false,” the effects can be real. They may be the minority of Americans, but “the people who are most directly involved in the processes that shape actual policy outcomes are the people who are most divided,” said Andrew Seligsohn, president of the nonprofit research firm Public Agenda. Gerrymandering means more and more elections are decided in party primaries, and thus by the most partisan subset of the electorate. Special-interest money amplifies the clout of ideological extremes. To the extent partisanship is more a phenomenon of elites than of average voters, those are the very elites who refuse to cooperate with one another to deliver policy outcomes most Americans want.

To say most Americans aren’t as polarized as they seem is not to say all is right with American democracy — and indeed, this very unrepresentativeness of the political class contributes to declining trust in the system overall. Most Americans voted for President Biden in 2020 and say he won the election legitimately, but as we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, a violent minority of a minority can threaten the very foundations of our democracy. But we should still take heart in the fact that, with all its flaws, this is a democracy. The majority matters. Even with the structural obstacles to better representation, it’s remains easier to change leadership than to change the raw material of the citizenry. And amazingly, two years into a “divisive” pandemic with the “all-in-it-together”-ness of early 2020 well in the rearview, Americans are still in it together more than many of us realize.