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  • Chris Bail

Just How Divided are We?

As the Trump Administration continues to square off with house democrats regarding the release of the full Mueller report, it can seem as though America is as divided as ever. Interestingly, however, the American National Election Study-- the largest study of American public opinion, political behavior, and voting intentions-- asks a series of questions each year designed to measure how ordinary Americans think of a range of different people and groups.


I produced the figure above using the latest data available: the 2018 Pilot of the American National Election study, which asked thousands of Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated people what they think about a range of people and groups in government and civil society-- as well as a range of different ethnic and minority groups.


Each person who takes the survey is asked to rate a person or group using a "Thermometer scale" that ranges from "0" to "100" (low scores mean the respondent feels "cold" towards the group and high scores mean the respondent feels "warm" about them).


As the figure above shows, the most divisive figures among Democrats and Republicans are clearly Donald Trump and Barack Obama-- no big surprises there. Kavanaugh and Mueller are also highly divisive, alongside journalists, socialists, rural Americans, and Muslims.


At the same time, the data show some room for hope: Americans have fairly consistent views about the FBI, the Police, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Whites, and to some extent, immigrants and LGBT people.


The take-home message for me is that too much of our politics focused on a small group of highly divisive elites. The danger, as so much social science theory teaches us, is that such elites can be easily confused with the masses. This process is accelerated by social media, of course.


Some clues about how to move forward lie in recent advances in social science research. Correcting misperceptions about rival political parties-- and even the extent of political polarization itself-- is one of the few interventions that social scientists have attempted that seem to lessen animosity between Republicans and Democrats. Now the important question is: how can we scale this?



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