And then there’s the conflict between Democrats and Republicans. Nearly three-quarters viewed that conflict as very strong, with more than 9 in 10 saying it was at least strong.
This isn’t a new development. But Pew’s data show that the country’s partisan divide has grown sharper in recent years, including in polling in which partisans increasingly described the opposition’s positions as a threat to the nation’s well-being.
These data are an academic representation of what’s viscerally obvious. The country is fractured along various fault lines, with partisanship often widening existing gaps. We see this in the response to the coronavirus pandemic: Relatively straightforward scientific advice has been brushed with blue and red paint, and used as more ammunition in the politiculture wars.
There are myriad reasons for the divide, including the emergence of media ecosystems that allow for siloed information sharing. It’s an era in which engagement is a currency, and exaggeration and misinformation power engagement. It’s a moment in which both the media and politicians see at least short-term value in highlighting contentiousness, which fuels the fire.
And it’s a moment in which we are on the brink of a highly contentious presidential election, one in which many supporters of both candidates — former vice president Joe Biden and incumbent President Trump — are desperate for victory. A poll conducted by Pew in the summer found that more than a third of Trump supporters would be angry if Biden won and that 6 in 10 Biden supporters would be angry if Trump did.
The broader concern is how that tension plays out at the fringe. A summer of fractious interactions has resulted in a number of shooting deaths centered on political protests. There’s broad concern that a disputed election result, one slowed or muddied by the pandemic-related increase in mail ballots, will lead to a period of amplified instability and, in a worst-case scenario, political violence. Even once the result is finalized (and, hopefully, accepted), there will be an urgent need to address the existing divide.
It’s useful to be direct here: That tensions have increased during Trump’s presidency is not a coincidence. Trump has often talked about unifying the country but more frequently sought to amplify his base’s concerns to bolster their enthusiasm and support. He has often given tacit approval to more extreme manifestations of political polarization. He embraces cultural fights, strengthening those divides. He has suggested that a loss in November will be invalid, a function of rampant voter fraud for which no evidence exists.
There are three paths forward for the United States. One is a static environment of tension, a cold cultural war between the right and left. Another is a widening gulf that would inexorably lead to some deeply negative consequence. The third, and most desirable, is a ratcheting down of tension, a closing of the divide.
Both candidates ostensibly seek that third outcome, raising an obvious question: How? How would they work to ease tensions between political and cultural groups in a way that mends American unity? How would they do so if they won and, as important, how would they do so if they lost?
We posed this question to both campaigns, recognizing that the responses each campaign would offer would necessarily be colored by the moment. The campaigns aren’t in building-a-bridge mode at the moment, they’re in scramble-for-votes-using-deliberate-messaging mode. What we were offered, then, was weighted heavily toward the immediate goal of winning the election and secondarily to specifics about bridging divides.
You are invited to make your own assessments of the extent to which each campaign’s response accurately reflects current events and what’s understood about the two candidates.
The Trump campaign response
The initial response from Ken Farnaso, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, focused heavily on the political moment. He asserted that Trump and Republicans on Capitol Hill had “come to the table in good faith to help heal the divisions that face our nation,” while Democrats “led by Joe Biden” had “played political football” with those issues.
“President Trump has a proven track record of offering leadership and solutions while the Democrats continue to play politics and fearmonger,” Farnaso wrote in an email.
Asked how Trump would specifically seek to bridge the political divide after the election, Farnaso offered a less pessimistic assessment.
“Since his first day in office, President Trump has shared his uniting vision of America,” Farnaso wrote. “He works tirelessly to ensure every American has the ability and opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential free of burdensome government overreach. The President’s optimism and love for this country are infectious, and he trusts that all people of good faith will come together after Election Day behind one unifying goal, creating an even stronger, safer, and more prosperous America for all.”
That statement doesn’t differentiate between victory and loss, not unexpectedly. The central point is in the conclusion: confidence that America will unify behind that shared goal. A unification that presumably would include Trump himself, should his reelection bid fail.
The Biden campaign response
Jamal Brown, Biden’s national press secretary, similarly replied over email.
“Joe Biden will work to unite and heal our political and cultural wounds, reform and restore faith in our democracy, and work across party lines to build consensus for all,” Brown wrote. He noted Biden’s record of bipartisanship, something that was reflected to some extent in the Democratic convention in August.
“With record unemployment, nearly 200,000 dead, and acts of domestic terrorism on the rise, Americans today are living the effects of a president who seeks to divide us for his own political gain,” Brown continued. “And no matter who they vote for, Vice President Biden will deliver for them by addressing the economic and public health devastation caused by Trump’s intentional lying about the threat of the coronavirus.”
This is similarly vague and the what-if-he-loses option here is, like Trump’s, a bit buried. This is, again, understandable. Politicians generally decline to theorize about a loss and tend to view their work as necessarily in the best interest of the United States. That, by extension, would meet the needs of the public and endear the public to them.
Biden’s campaign rhetoric is heavy on the ways in which he would roll back the shifts to public policy and political norms Trump introduced. But that highlights a key problem. Trump’s focus on gutting what Barack Obama did as president was part of his appeal in 2016 and part of his process of further endearing him to his base. Biden suggests taking a similar but narrower approach to Trump’s administration. If you view Trump’s work as good and Obama’s as bad, you’ll see Biden’s pitch as divisive. If you view Obama’s work as good and Trump’s as bad, you’ll see what Biden proposes as necessary.
That framing seems insurmountable. How do you draw a balance between shifting America’s direction away from what Trump has done without alienating Trump supporters? Trump’s approach to Obama’s work didn’t noticeably worry about such alienation, but any serious attempt at bridging the political divide will probably require a focus on tact that is not a hallmark of modern American politics.
Ultimately, efforts by either candidate will be tightly bound by the way in which their efforts are conveyed to the public. Should Biden win (or even if he loses), his ability to help draw the country together will depend on how Fox News covers what he’s doing. Again, the divide is not mostly one focused on policy but on the intangible sense of what it means to be a member of either party and what cultural values that identity represents.
Again, let’s be frank. Trump shapes much of how politics and culture overlap in the moment. That gives him more power to resolve existing tensions than Biden is likely to have. Trump’s campaign says he trusts that people of good faith will unite behind a shared agenda. The question we posed to each campaign, though, was how that will happen — and the answers we got were vague.
Perhaps there aren’t good answers either candidate can provide.