Americans Aren’t As Divided As You Think

 In Politics


Win McNamee/Getty Images


I spent a year traveling throughout Red America. To my liberal friends, don’t worry: It was just fine.

Every day, America is being misled by the political parties, our political leaders and the press. We are told that the other side – whether it’s liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans – are not just wrong on the issues, but full of destructive intent. The other side is full of deplorables or white nationalists or snowflakes or, worse yet, globalists. We are assured that the other side despises American values and is intent on destroying the country as we know it. We believe all these things.

Here’s something to talk about at your Thanksgiving dinner table: None of this is true. I’m a life-long Democrat and have a resume that practically bleeds blue: a couple turns in Democratic politics, almost a decade running NPR, and degrees from Yale Law School and Haverford College. But last year, spurred by a fear that Red and Blue America were drifting irrevocably apart, I decided to venture out from my overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood and safely Democratic life, and engage Republicans where they live, work and pray. I found an America far different from the one depicted in the press and imagined for us by politicians.

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I sat in the pews of tiny evangelical churches in Virginia and mega-churches in Houston and was moved by the passion of many of my fellow congregants to help the poor and those who live in the shadows. It wasn’t just empty Sunday words, but weekday deeds by many of my new co-religionists to support refugees, feed the hungry and house the homeless. I traveled into some of the most economically depressed areas of our country and met coal miners without coal mines and mill workers without mills. It didn’t seem so deplorable that many of them were angry that the economies of their communities and the health of their families were in a three-decade freefall, and were eager to protest a government and a political and media establishment that were willing to accept their pain as a necessary byproduct of free trade or the fight against global warming. Over the course of a year, I traveled from churches to conservative think tanks to NASCAR races and even to tea party meetings, and I was almost always able to find more points of agreement and commonality than I thought possible.

Don’t get me wrong. I met a few less attractive types along the way—people who would openly assure me of the vast global conspiracies that control the White House—and I spent enough time on the Breitbart comment pages to have my faith in humanity weakened a time or two. But these instances were far outnumbered by the many points of commonality I found along the way. As Sam Adams, an openly gay mayor who worked closely with Portland’s evangelical community, told me, we’ve all fallen into a trap: “If we disagree, we must hate each other. If the media portrays us, certain aspects of us or certain individuals hating each other, then that must be true for everybody … There are things we don’t agree on as a liberal Democrat and as an evangelical leader … We can agree to disagree on gay marriage and disagree on abortion but we probably agree on eight of 10 things that are important to society.”

We loathe the other side far more than we used to – polls show that most Americans now believe the other political party threatens the nation’s well-being, and a stunning number of us now disapprove of our children engaging in mixed marriages – not racially mixed, not religiously mixed, but politically mixed. But the odd thing is that while we are far more politically polarized, we are not more issue polarized than in the past. It is counterintuitive in this age of anger, but on the issues, we still tend to be a fairly agreeable and moderate people. As Morris Fiorina, the Stanford political scientist, has observed, “on most issues, attitudes continue to cluster in the middle rather than lump up on the extremes.”

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