We are on the eve of the most American of holidays — the Fourth of July.
If there’s ever a day when we can set aside our differences and celebrate the things we have in common, it’s this one.
However, a survey earlier this year commissioned by The Atlantic magazine raises some provocative — some might say troubling — questions about just how united these United States of America really are.
It’s not just that we have disagreements over politics. We’ve always had disagreements over politics. That’s the nature of a democracy — indeed, one of its advantages. We’re allowed to have disagreements, provided they don’t get too out of hand. July 3, we should remember, is not just the day before our Independence Day —it’s also the anniversary of the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, when our ability to live together as a single nation was tested.
What The Atlantic survey found was not just that we are polarized over the issues of the day, but some Americans simply don’t know their fellow citizens very well.
Now, this shouldn’t come as a shock. Author Bill Bishop has been writing about this for some time. His book on the subject — “The Big Sort: “Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart” — came out 11 years ago. It looked at how over the past three decades Americans have self-segregated themselves in lots of ways. Among them: “In 1976, only about a quarter of America’s voters lived in a county a presidential candidate won by a landslide margin. By 2004, it was nearly half.” By 2016, that figure was up to 60%.
Think about it this way: The 2016 election was close but most Americans live in places where it wasn’t close at all. Even Virginia, a state that was reasonably close, was still quite divided along geographical lines — from 79.7% for Hillary Clinton in Charlottesville to 82% for Donald Trump in Bland County. A Washington Post survey that fall found: “More than half the people who support one of the two major-party candidates say they do not have any close friends or family voting for the other. Fifty-four percent of voters in Trump’s camp say they have no Clinton supporters in their inner circles. And 60% of Clinton backers say they are not close to any Trump voters.”
How can we begin to understand the other side if we simply don’t know anyone on that side? That makes it all too easy to demonize the other side — and demonize in only a step away from dehumanizing. That way lies only darkness.
The Atlantic survey adds more details to our understanding of this growing cultural divide.
Nearly 40% of those surveyed said they hardly ever had any interaction with someone of a different political party — or a different race or ethnicity — or a different religion. By “hardly ever” we mean either “a few times a year” or “seldom or never.” While about 60% live in a world where they interact with others of different beliefs or backgrounds “at least once a week,” a significant minority live in an America where they don’t. Might that make it harder to understand then someone who holds political beliefs different from yours? That lack of understanding might, indeed, make it seem as if every election isn’t simply an election, but an existential decision. That’s probably not good for the long-term health of the country.
Not only are we divided, but some on both ends of the political spectrum want us to stay divided: 35% of Republicans say they’d be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Democrat; 45% of Democrats say they’d be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Republican. Isn’t that the kind of thing that led to the tragically unhappy ending of “Romeo and Juliet”?
For context: The pollsters tell us “this is a stark difference from 1960 when fewer than one in ten Republicans (4%) or Democrats (4%) said they would be displeased if their son or daughter married someone of the opposite party.” Somehow since 1960, Democrats have become 10.5 times less forgiving of an inter-party marriage and Republicans nearly nine times less forgiving of the same.
Here’s another way to measure this: Both Republicans and Democrats are more open to their son or daughter marrying someone of a different race or religion than they are to marrying someone of the opposite political party. Democrats are also more open to their son or daughter marrying someone of the same sex or someone who identifies as transgender than they are to marrying, heaven forbid, a Republican. Republicans won’t go that far; they’d tolerate a Democratic son-in-law or daughter-in-law more than they would a same-sex or transgender in-law, but a significant number aren’t happy with any of those possibilities.
What’s driving these stark divisions? The poll finds two particular groups more close-minded than others —white evangelical Christians on the right and non-religious people on the left. The pollster writes: “White evangelical Protestants stand out on this question: Nearly three in ten (29%) say they would be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Democrat, compared to 14% of Catholics, 13% of white mainline Protestants, and 10% each of religiously unaffiliated Americans and nonwhite Protestants. Religiously unaffiliated Americans, meanwhile, are disproportionately likely to say they would be unhappy if their child married a Republican: one-third (33%) say they would be somewhat or very unhappy in this situation, compared to 23% of nonwhite Protestants, 20% of Catholics, 17% of white mainline Protestants, and 5% of white evangelical Protestants.”
In effect, a significant chunk of Americans —some on each side of the political spectrum — are engaged in a kind of cultural secession and don’t want anything to do with those who aren’t like them. Is this really good for the country? Actual secession led to civil war; where will this cultural secession lead? There is, though, one area where those on both the left and right agree, in equal numbers. According to the pollster: “Americans are more likely to view their interactions with people who do not share their political affiliation in a negative light. Only 40% of Americans say their interactions with people of a different political persuasion are mostly or somewhat positive; 36% say they are neither positive nor negative; and almost one in five (19%) say these interactions are somewhat or mostly negative. Notably, there are no significant differences between partisans on this question.”
We’re 156 years removed from Gettysburg, yet in some ways we’re getting closer with each passing year.