At some point in the recent past, political pundits agreed that it was a mark of intellectual seriousness to preface almost any reference to the United States of America with the phrase “deeply divided.”
America, we’re regularly told, is split down the middle on a variety of social and economic issues. But a more thorough exploration of the divisions that have supposedly riven America often reveals that the country isn’t nearly as divided as we’re told.
On Monday, Axios provided us with a case in point. That media outlet informed us of the results of their exclusive poll tracking American views on transgender athletes—a poll that reveals a “deep divide” on the issue. But no such divide is apparent in the poll Axios cites. When respondents were asked if they believe transgender athletes should either compete among “the gender with which they identify,” against “the gender they were assigned at birth,” or whether they shouldn’t compete at all, the issue seems rather clear-cut.
Just 35 percent of self-described Democrats believe transgender athletes should compete against their preferred identity group even if that conflicts with the accidents of their birth. Eighteen percent of independents and 8 percent of Republicans agree, for a grand total of 20 percent of all respondents who favor identity-based competition. By contrast, 39 percent of all respondents believe athletes should compete only against those of their own birth gender, and another 14 percent don’t believe they should be allowed to compete at all. Regardless of the value judgment you assign to these results, they are not indicative of a “deeply divided” nation.
This phenomenon—blaring headlines that purport to suggest America’s pronounced divisions supported by disputable data—is apparent across a broad spectrum of hot-button social issues.
In July 2020, Americans’ views on the state of progress towards gender equality were subjected to a critical audit by the press. The news hook that served as a jumping-off point for this examination was provided by the Pew Research Center, which had found that, while 80 percent of Americans were supportive of equality between the sexes, fewer Americans described themselves as feminist. “Feminism is taken to mean a shared perspective on these issues, but because the issues divide constituencies, it turns into pushing aside the label rather than understanding it as a category that can, and does, contain complexity,” Duke University lecturer Karla Holloway told USA Today.
Again, the poll at issue suggests more agreement than divergence. Majorities in that survey told pollsters that feminism’s legacy of creating more opportunities for women and minorities was laudable. What’s more, substantial majorities or pluralities across the American political and demographic spectra said that there is work yet to do to achieve perfect gender equality. But overwhelming majorities also said that progress toward gender equality in the United States had been significant. Sixty-five percent of all adults—including majorities of both Republicans and Democrats, men and women alike—affirmed that progress had been made over the last decade. Only 35 percent said that the country had lost ground or had only spent the last ten years treading water. Among activists, social scientists, and political consultants, the belief that America has made any progress toward gender equality in the last decade is the wrong opinion. If the nation is “deeply divided” on the issue, it is a divide that separates the public from special interests.
The same could be said of violent-crime rates. The Washington Post observed that Americans are “divided” not on the existence of rising rates of violent interactions between civilians but on what to do about the problem. But the Post/ABC News survey justifying the claim didn’t find divisions so much as find overlap. Significant majorities believed “increasing funding for police departments,” “using social workers to help police,” and “increasing funding to build economic opportunities” in at-risk communities would help. Where there was division, it was over whether stricter gun laws would help prevent violent crime. By 51 to 47 percent, respondents backed the “stricter enforcement” of existing gun laws and opposed new gun-control laws by 53 to 46 percent.
The issue of crime overlaps with another matter that supposedly divides the country more than any other: race. A headline-making NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey released in May found that a staggering 17 percent of Americans believe race relations were better then than they were a year earlier. “The findings underscore the often-sharp differences Americans have when it comes to race,” NPR’s writeup read. And there are plenty of divisions among Americans when it comes to remedying racial inequality. And yet, the 17 percent who said race relations were better in 2021 than they were in 2020 complements the 39 percent who said they were “about the same.” In sum, 56 percent described race relations as the same or better in 2021 compared to 42 percent who said they were worse. Moreover, 57 percent of respondents said they believed race relations would continue to progress in the right direction.
All this contributes to a real “deep divide” among Americans—a divide typified by perception. An AP/NORC survey published in October 2020 found that a staggering 85 percent of Americans described the nation as ruptured by conflict over competing value sets. But that existentially parlous notion obscures the fact that most Americans agree on first principles. More than six in ten adults believe that elected officials should “make compromises with people they disagree with.” Eight in ten reject violence as an alternative form of political expression. Prohibitive majorities believe in preserving America’s natural resources, the protection of basic privacy rights, the necessity of access to quality education, and striving toward racial equality. Maintaining open and fair elections, the system of checks and balances, the right to protest and provide legal protections to the expression of unpopular opinions, and the freedom of the press are not subject to debate outside hothouse political environments like cable news and social media.
A discerning observer is forced to conclude that what troubles our cultural critics aren’t America’s divisions but the fact that we’re not divided enough. For some, the problem plaguing the nation today isn’t our divisions but an absence of the sort of divisions they prefer.