At a fundraiser on Tuesday night, former vice president Joe Biden argued that America had only grown more united since he first came to the U.S. Senate in 1973.
“America’s less divided today on issues than when I got to the Senate as a 29-year-old kid,” Biden said, according to the New York Times’s Shane Goldmacher. “Then we were divided on everything from war, to the women’s movement, to civil rights, across the board.”
There’s an extent to which this is obviously true. America was deeply divided by the Vietnam War, a divide that eased after the war ended. The issue of civil rights has become less divisive, as have issues related to women’s empowerment.
Those changes, though, may be less dramatic than Biden thinks. The percentage of Americans who said men should work while women stay at home was 5 percent last year, down from 19 percent in 1977. In 1973, 33 percent of respondents thought the government should spend more money to improve conditions for black Americans. In 2014, only 30 percent thought so. Since then, though, the figure has jumped to more than 50 percent, part of a shift in racial views after the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Where Biden’s comment really misses the mark is in its underestimation of the other ways in which America is more divided now than it was then.
That’s obvious in Congress itself. When Biden got to the Senate, Republicans and Democrats were less divided ideologically than they are in the current Congress. Using ideological scores calculated by VoteView, the gap between Republican and Democratic senators in 1973 was 0.596. By 2017, it was 0.836.
That measure looks at how legislators voted. It’s certainly an imperfect proxy for broader divides in American society and cultural.
A better measure in that regard comes from Pew Research Center. In October 2017, it released data on how Americans responded to a number of questions about political values. Those included questions about government regulation, homosexuality, race, immigration and business — and more anodyne questions such as the type of neighborhood the respondent preferred.
It’s asked a number of the same questions since the 1990s. How have responses changed? The divide in how people respond has grown the widest when comparing members of opposing political parties. The divide in responses from members of different racial groups, different educational backgrounds or different genders has remained broadly consistent. On party, though, views have diverged broadly.
That’s the subtext to questions of national unity. Sure, views of the Vietnam War have largely smoothed out. But views on things such as the role of government in supporting the poor or the need for stricter environmental laws have grown much wider over the past 25 years, largely because of the gulf between Democrats and Republicans.
At another point, Pew created an animation showing how the two parties have moved away from one another over the same period.
Granted, Pew’s data doesn’t go back to 1973. But it seems likely that if Congress has grown more consistently more polarized over the past four decades, then American society didn’t grow significantly more united after the 1970s only to again diverge in the late 1990s. Since the 1990s, partisan views of the opposition have grown consistently more negative.
There’s an idealism to Biden’s comment, that the worst divides America has seen are in its past. Perhaps that’s true in broad terms. The idea certainly comports with Biden’s informal 2020 campaign message of a return to a better time.
It fails to acknowledge, though, the very real and very deep divides that still exist — often on the sorts of low-profile things that don’t inspire marches in the streets.