This Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground report focuses on affective polarization, meaning negative feelings towards people whose political views differ from one’s own. Findings from this nationally representative survey of American adults, fielded in September 2021, include:
1. Americans are united in thinking that partisan hostility and divisiveness harm the country and want a less contentious nation. Across the political spectrum and demographic groups, Americans believe that partisan hostility among ordinary people and among politicians are both very serious problems. Most agree that partisanship has made it more difficult to conduct elections and deal with the economic and health impacts of the pandemic. Half of Americans also say partisan divisiveness has made solving problems in their community more difficult and one-third say it has strained personal relationships. A growing share of people worries that Americans do not know how to disagree constructively and have too many fundamental disagreements and conflicting values. Few Americans are optimistic that partisan hostility will decrease in the next ten years, though most wish it would, and many believe there are viable ways to bridge our divides.
2. Most Americans actually do not have strongly unfavorable feelings towards either Democratic or Republican voters. Across the political spectrum, only 30 percent of Americans have very unfavorable feelings towards either Democratic or Republican voters. Those who feel the most unfavorably, whether towards Democratic or Republican voters, are especially likely to feel that divisiveness negatively impacts their lives and the nation. However, 20 percent of Americans feel just moderately unfavorably toward Democratic or Republican voters and another 23 percent feel only a little unfavorably towards voters on either side. People who feel the least unfavorably, whether towards Democratic or Republican voters, are especially likely to have friends with different political viewpoints, to believe that differences of opinion are good for our country, and to believe that they can learn something by talking to people with opposing views. Eleven percent of Americans actually feel favorably toward both Democratic and Republican voters and 16 percent do not know how they feel.
3. Most Americans believe in the value of differences of opinion and dialogue, and many are trying to connect across partisan lines. Most Americans say they can learn something by talking to people with opposing views, and almost half say they have had constructive conversations about politics with people with opposing views. A modest majority of Americans, including a substantial majority of Democrats, think that organized community dialogue would bring the country together.
4. A strong cross-partisan majority of Americans believe that the federal government should ensure voting rights for all, and a more modest majority believe that doing so would actually bring the country together. By contrast, partisan differences of opinion emerge starkly when people are asked about federal policies directly aimed at combating racism. An 86 percent majority of Americans, including a large majority of Republicans, believe that the federal government should ensure voting rights, and a 57 percent majority believes that doing so would bring the country together. Nearly half of Americans believe that each state creating its own voting rules would actually drive the country further apart. When it comes to federal efforts to combat racism, twice as many Democrats as Republicans believe that such policies would help unify the country. Moreover, far fewer Republicans than people of other political affiliations believe that it would be good for the country to continue becoming more diverse.
5. To bring the country together, Americans agree on the need for better news and information; and, most want social media to stop amplifying divisiveness. When asked about thirteen measures that might help bring the country together, Americans see the greatest potential in more accurate, trustworthy news and information. Cross-partisan majorities specifically emphasize the potential of solutions-focused, non-partisan news. Most social media users have felt fed up with how people talk about politics online, and half of them say they have posted about Americans’ common ground in the past year.
6. Across partisan lines, most Americans agree that reducing the influence of money in politics would help bring the country together. Many people also believe that educational approaches would help unify the country. Democrats especially believe that teaching students to deal with conflicts constructively, making higher education affordable, and national service would help unify the country. Majorities or pluralities of Americans across political affiliations support teaching students about both the nation’s shortcomings and its achievements.