The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new measure of the bleak, alarming partisan divide in America

Two men stand armed with guns on Jan. 6, 2021, in front of the Governor's Mansion in Olympia, Wash., during a protest supporting President Donald Trump. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
5 min

It’s disconcerting that Americans see politics as the most important trigger for whether to pursue a friendship with a new acquaintance. It’s far more disconcerting that most Americans feel like the government is rigged against them and that more than a quarter speculate that armed opposition to the government may soon become necessary.

Just before the Fourth of July holiday weekend, the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics (IOP) published new polling including those findings. Conducted in May, the poll was elevated in a segment on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. Its findings gave new, well-deserved attention to information that many people had overlooked (including at least some of us who track such polling for our jobs).

What the poll found isn’t surprising, as such: Partisans view each other with hostility and skepticism. But when overlaid with other patterns in American politics — like the embrace of rhetoric about violence, particularly on the right — the potential repercussions become alarming.

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Politics has by now become deeply intertwined with culture, and vice versa. We understand certain signifiers to overlap with political belief even without having to articulate them: pickup trucks, symphony tickets. But while about half of Americans see shared taste in music and entertainment as important to establishing a new friendship, slightly more Americans — and more partisans, particularly Democrats — see shared political views in the same way.

That’s obviously linked to the extent of skepticism expressed by members of one party toward members of the other. The IOP poll (conducted by a pair of researchers who generally poll for one of the two major parties) found that about three-quarters of both Republicans and Democrats saw members of the other party as bullies. Similar percentages from each party viewed the opposite party as dishonest and advocating “disinformation.”

Notice, though, that independents are less stark in their views of the parties. About half see either party as bullies or dishonest, far lower than members of the opposing party. This is likely in part because the group “independents” is itself polarized by party allegiances, with most independents tending to align with one party or the other.

But independents do have distinctly different views of the political space. They are more likely to say they avoid political discussions altogether, less likely to say that political views are a useful guide to someone’s personality and more likely to say they agree with both sides of the spectrum.

They are also less likely to say they’re closely tracking current events — a finding that’s consistent with lots of other research.

The picture, then, is of two hostile partisan groups separated by a less-frustrated pool of independents in the middle. But other questions from the polling show that this isn’t universally true. On some questions of trust in government, independents express the same level of cynicism as Republicans.

For example, more than 6 in 10 independents and Republicans said they thought the government was “corrupt” and “rigged against” them, compared to less than half of Democrats.

Most independents and Republicans (but not Democrats) said they felt like a “stranger” in their own country.

Most independents said they had confidence in our election system, but that was far fewer than the three-quarters of Democrats who said they did. Among Republicans, only a third said they had that sort of trust, including only 1 in 10 who said they strongly agreed with that idea.

This, of course, is in part a reflection of the concerted effort by former president Donald Trump to elevate concerns about our election systems to downplay his loss in 2020. There’s no real debate that the election that brought Joe Biden to the White House wasn’t tainted with any significant fraud, but Republicans continue to insist that it was. (It’s worth noting that only a quarter of Republicans think national newspapers such as The Washington Post cover the news in good faith, while 4 in 10 think outlets like One America News and Newsmax do.)

On the question of “taking up arms” against the government, more than a third of both independents and Republicans say this might soon be necessary — including 13 percent of Republicans who strongly agree with the idea.

This isn’t simply a weird offshoot of one poll, of course. As The Post’s David Weigel reported over the weekend, rhetoric that flirts with or espouses armed conflict is common among Republicans on the campaign trail this year. That at times overlaps with commentary centered on how the country is devolving into something unrecognizable or particularly dangerous to conservatives.

The idea of taking up arms against the government is more common among Republicans, though, of course, it’s not unheard of among Democrats. But the most recent national General Social Survey, conducted last year, found that Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to own firearms, a necessary predicate for taking them up.

What emerges, then, is some new color in a long-standing, bleak picture: American partisans deeply skeptical of one another and hostile to the other party. Most partisans saying that their friends mostly share their politics. And, most alarmingly, a recurring murmur of potential violence.