In addition to the divides between Republicans and Democrats, the Pew data shows growing divisions within the parties, too. The traditional coalitions binding together Republicans and binding together Democrats are shifting, driven by growing internal divisions around age and other factors.
These divisions are not new. Most have existed in some form for decades. However, the Pew data shows that the gaps dividing Americans began to widen significantly during Barack Obama’s presidency. Donald Trump did not create these divisions, but he exacerbates them. Trump has an instinctive feel for where the fault lines lie in American society, and he constantly pushes on them.
This Trump effect is further pushing Americans apart. According to the Pew data, the partisan gap in Trump’s job approval ratings is larger than for any president in six decades, with high approval ratings from Republicans and very low ones from Democrats. Many liberals who strongly disagreed with President George W. Bush still had respect for their Republican relatives, friends and colleagues, but many of these same liberals today are struggling with how to respect people who voted for Trump. Many conservatives rejoice to see the way that Trump insults liberals and other opponents of the Republican party, and the way he goes after moderate Republicans as well. Some other Republicans are not fans of Trump but feel defensive when they hear liberals condemn him. Many Americans today feel it is far harder than ever in their lifetime to have civil political conservations with people they disagree with.
Liberals and conservatives can barely even speak to each other, and while the US president exacerbates the divisions, they began before he was elected.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
This widespread, strongly felt division has left many Americans — and political analysts and pundits — questioning why Americans have become so divided. The answer is far too complex and multifaceted to fully address here, but one important factor is self-sorting.
Many writers and data analysts have talked about the trend of self-sorting in the United States, and there are various definitions. The term dates from at least 2004. In terms of understanding the political divide, the main point is that Americans have increasingly been choosing to live in places where people around them are likely to share their cultural and political views. This was seldom driven by a conscious choice to live with Republican or Democratic neighbors; rather, Americans sought to live in places with lifestyles they enjoyed. Political identity and lifestyle choices have become more closely entwined. For example, Pew data has found that Republicans tend to prefer living in places with more space while Democrats tend to prefer places where they can walk to schools, shopping and work. Of course, these are generalizations; there are still lots of Republicans who like cities and plenty of Democrats who prefer smaller towns. Nonetheless, looking across the country, there are clear trends linking lifestyle preferences and political identity.
News and entertainment preferences are an important part of this self-sorting, too. Since the creation of conservative Fox News in 1996, the US media landscape has shifted from a few dominant players that tried to provide balanced reporting (although some conservatives and liberals would argue otherwise) to a more diffuse landscape with far more media outlets, many of which intentionally provide news with a strong conservative or liberal slant. Americans no longer share a common understanding of facts and basic political realities. This makes civil, constructive debate far more difficult. Social media has intensified this problem, making it very easy for people to receive and share news, memes and other political statements that support what they want to believe.
Even beyond news, there is a growing alignment between political identity and entertainment choices. The New York Times’s The Upshot showed in December 2016 that voting preferences and TV entertainment choices closely align. FiveThirtyEight demonstrated in September that even Americans’ sports preferences are often aligned with their political party.
Other factors are driving the growing political divide, including demographic changes, economic shifts and the need by many people for a sense of “sameness” and “unity.” Underlying these factors are macro-level trends that are affecting much of the globe, including urbanization and the effects of globalization.
Many Americans are asking how the political fabric might be stitched back together. This has prompted small but important efforts to encourage dialogue, often led by churches, mosques and synagogues, podcasters, community leaders and others. There are efforts in media to create platforms for presenting different perspectives, such as AllSides.com. Such efforts are important but are small and dispersed. They are struggling against the flow of growing division.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch