Are We So Divided?

Are Americans really so divided?  Whenever people come together, it’s certainty that they will eventually clash over something.  But the truth is that Americans are not really so divided as we are told.  There are plenty of reasons to expect Americans can work together to solve their problems.

There are many policy positions that a majority of Americans agree with, right or left, male or female, urban or rural.  This is illustrated well by a Esquire-NBC News survey carried out in 2013 that was designed by a team of Republican and Democratic pollsters. The American center defies simple categories. In some cases the majority in 2013 leaned right (for example 81% support offshore drilling) while in other cases it leaned left (for example 70% support paid maternity leave).  Who was in the center in 2013?  That too is not so simple:   28% were Republicans, 36% were Democrats, 36% were Independents. The people of the center self-described as liberals (20 percent), conservatives (25 percent), moderates (55 percent), and 15 percent supported the Tea Party.  Conclusion: we are being mislead with the steady drumbeat of assertions about “divided” America.  It isn’t so. (See also fear mongering.)

Note: The 2013 pollsters assert most polls “shunt voters into dueling camps, emphasizing difference and measuring ideology in relation to political parties. [By contrast,] The Esquire-NBC News survey, conducted nationwide with 2,410 registered voters, took a less common approach to the electorate, measuring a range of opinion, searching for overlap and gauging ideology by issue, not party.”

There has not been much change in what the center regards as policy priorities. A new January 2017 poll by the Pew Research Center shows that all of the top centrist priorities in 2009 remain top priorities in 2017: terrorism, the economy, education, jobs, healthcare costs, social security, medicare.

Conservatives and liberals can be friends.  Nancy Reagan famously observed that her husband and liberal senate leader Ted Kennedy were good friends.  George W. Bush has become good friends with Bill Clinton.   The Democratic and Republican state party chairmen from South Carolina, Jaime Harrison and Matt Moore, have been friends for years. Not only are they from different political parties, one is 7 years older than the other and they are from different races.

Conservatives and liberals can even become husband and wife.  Consider the case of James Carville and Mary Matalin.  One is a political consultant for the Republican Party, the other a political consultant for the Democratic Party.  They have been married since 1993.  Jeanne Safer and Richard Brookhiser have been married 3 decades despite their divided political loyalties.  Is this cherry picking?  The famous FiveThirtyEight website looked into the matter.  Yes, they found that like do tend to marry like, yet 9 percent were of mixed parties, and another 21 were mixed between one party and an independent spouse.  Equally interesting, they found that single party couples do not dominate neighborhoods, even in heavily Republican or Democratic areas.  Claims of people sorting into enclaves may be overblown.

The number of common interests between people outweigh the political divide.  Matalin notes, for example, that she and her husband have common interests in their church community, their family, cooking, history, and fishing.  In fact, so many of us share a common love of a sport like football (even though we could debate team is best), a common love of good food (even though we could argue about which ethnic style is best), a common love of music (though we could argue over what kind), entertainment, travel, and so on.

There is plenty of common ground when you look for it.  According to Matalin, “Our basic philosophical thrust about the level of government interaction is diametrically opposed, but our love for policy and politics and the need for informed citizenry and participatory democracy is the same.”  When you think about it, what she says is true for most Americans.  As Dominic Tierney points out, Americans are actually quite united when it comes to democracy over dictatorship, freedom over slavery, equal opportunities for all, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the rule of law.

Conservatives and liberals can and do collaborate.  Harrison and Moore, for example, work together on criminal justice reform in South Carolina.  At the federal level, just this year,Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican, and Washington Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, worked together on a new education policy law.  More generally, only a few bills in each US Congress are enacted into law.  According to, having bipartisan sponsorship is one of the key factors that will push a bill over the top:  specifically, that the bill’s sponsor is in the majority party and at least 1/3rd of the co-sponsors are in the minority party.

Consider the possibility that you could play a role in bringing people together.  The Village Square is promoting the idea of Jefferson Dinners.  President Jefferson engineered conversations at dinner that helped people discover their common humanity. Some people say Jefferson’s dinners helped save our early republic.  If you would like to host such a dinner, please click here.

Please share your own stories of friendship or collaboration in the comment section below.

 If you want to read more:

Carville and Matalin, 2014. Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home. The Penguin Group, New York.

Hersh and Ghitza, 2016. How Many Republicans Marry Democrats?

NBC News, 2013. The New American Center: Why Our Country Isn’t as Divided as We Think.

Pew Research Center, 2017. After Seismic Political Shift, Modest Changes in Public’s Policy Agenda.

Tierney, 2011.  Why are Americans So Ideologically United?  The Atlantic, August 23.

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