To say that America is polarized is like beating a dead horse. According to Pew Research, we are not yet on the brink of a civil war. However, the overall partisan gap is the greatest it’s been since 1994, at a 36-percentage-point difference between Democrats and Republicans. While the two parties are splitting within themselves, the ideological distance between them is only growing. The most pressing question is whether or not anyone wants to start building bridges. I surveyed liberals and conservatives on how they view each other and whether or not these divisions can ever be crossed.
I drew data from Pew Research and a poll I conducted of students from the University of Chicago. I received 90 responses. However, five responses listed both “centrist or independent” and had no partisan affiliation. These responses were ignored as irrelevant to the purposes of this article. Of the 85 remaining responses, there was a 2:1 liberal to conservative ratio. Since my sample is a small group of university students, I fully anticipate there to be discrepancies with national data, especially with stats regarding non-college educated Americans. Another note going forward: even though my survey relied upon a random sample, it was still volunteer-based and relatively small. Therefore, it is not definitively representative of the university as a whole.
The foundation of most political disagreements arises from differences in policy, because these differences compose each party’s platform. Today, Americans are far less mixed on their political values and policies than in the past. Some 49% of Americans held a roughly equal number of liberal and conservative views in 1994, but the number shrunk to 32% by 2017. Along this trend, there is less overlap in political values, with 95% of Republicans being more conservative than the median Democrat, and 97% of Democrats being more liberal than the median Republican.
In the survey I conducted amongst my peers, this political divide is illustrated by the prominence of certain issues. Liberals and conservatives do not just disagree on most issues—they rank completely different issues as their highest priority. Among UChicago undergraduates, when asked to rank their top three issues in descending order, liberals’ top five issues were Climate Change and the Environment (67% of respondents), Healthcare (46%), Education (32%), Economy and Jobs (28%), and Race Relations (23%). Climate Change and the Environment was an overwhelming top choice, with 20 of 57 liberals ranking it as their top issue. In contrast, only 2 of 28 conservatives ranked Climate Change and the Environment in their top three.
The issue of COVID-19 also appeared to bear the mark of the partisan divide. It made its way into the number one spot of five liberal respondents but featured nowhere on conservative responses. This discrepancy could, however, be due to the smaller sample of conservatives.
On topics strongly disagreed upon between progressive (the left) and moderate liberals, liberals still did not align more with conservatives. In fact, “there is little evidence that the other party’s positions hold appeal for Republicans or Democrats, even on issues for which one’s own party is relatively low [appeal].” In our poll, while liberals did not find the issue of abortion as equally pressing as conservatives, it was the number one issue respondents would not compromise with conservatives on. Pew Research shows around seven in ten constituents of both parties agree with their party’s position at least half the time, but around eight in ten constituents disagree with the other party’s positions more than half the time. While there is a growing split between progressive and moderate liberals, both agree that they are mainly opposed to conservatives, who they view as the greatest threat to democracy and their humanity.
On the Emotional Issues
Some policy issues have evolved into emotional ones. “On several social issues, people tend to conflate their own views of an issue and someone else’s stance on a policy,” says Harry Gardner, a moderate Democrat whom I had the privilege of interviewing. Gardner continues, “[for example] they’re pro-life, so they must hate women.” Because people’s political stances are usually shaped by family, religious, or social experiences, their politics are about more than just disagreeing upon policy, but also upon what is good and virtuous.
When analyzing how partisans view each other, both Democrats and Republicans have increasingly rated one another as “cold” after 2016. While Republicans are more likely to give Democrats negative characteristics, Democrats say Republicans are more close-minded (75% of Democrats). “The conservatives always appeal to voters in the old south and their main ideals…when I hear conservatives all I can think of is the old south,” says my second interviewee, a Democratic Socialist at UChicago. She adds, “[w]hat I would like is for them to read more literature…the number one step is to understand…that everything you have been taught…could be wrong, and 9 out of 10 times it is.”
These sentiments were echoed in the results of our survey. When asked to describe their opposing party with three adjectives, the most popular descriptors of Conservatives were: “traditional/outdated/stagnant,” “misguided/uninformed/ignorant,” and “close-minded/un-empathetic/bigoted.” While there were some more extreme descriptors such as “fascististic,” “racist,” “brain dead,” “sheep,” and “inhumane,” the overwhelming response was that conservatives are simply less informed or unaware. Amidst the negative qualities, there were a dozen or so positive descriptors such as “well-intentioned”, “earnest”, “respectable”, “rational”, and “working toward a common good”. However, conservatives still have a ways to go in the eyes of their liberal counterparts if some respondents describe them as a “malicious death-cult” and “white, rich ideologues.”
When rating their opponents on empathy, liberals collectively rated conservatives an average of 1.89 out of 5, while center-left liberals (those who identified as independents but nonetheless claim a party on the left) rate conservatives 2.89. “When it comes to empathy people are like ‘conservatives have no empathy’…I don’t think it’s an empathy issue, [though] it’s an issue that a lot of people have been derided on,” Gardner explains. My second interviewee shares in this observation saying, “A lot of conservative people that are not part of the establishment usually come from a hurt position saying the democrats lie to them, so they run to a place of security saying I want guns and I want law and order…there is a fearful spirit that I find in a lot of conservatives.”
While this fear is acknowledged, liberals don’t seem to view it as an excuse for conservative actions or policies. Among the responses of things conservatives need to understand, and issues liberals are unable to compromise on, there was a cry for conservatives to look outside themselves and focus on marginalized groups such as Black people and women. Black Lives Matter, abortion, climate change, and voting rights were among the top issues liberals were unable to compromise on. “When people don’t participate in democracy, it sucks,” Gardner said. “While there are issues of fraud…there are ways to solve it while also preserving higher turnout.” My second interviewee took this a step further and said, “before we can have correct change we have to really tear apart that system in America so more people can be active in the democracy so we can produce change we want to see…The US is the only country that strips your right to vote because you’re a criminal and a lot of ways people oppress minority populations is through criminalization over anything else.” Note that prisoners in several countries such as New Zealand, Russia, and the UK are actually banned from voting, while at least three countries outside the US have post release restrictions.
Beyond Politics: Are We Stuck Watching “Partisan Porn”?
How do we progress from here? Some 91% of Americans say party conflict is either strong or very strong. And Democrats have a marginally greater view of divisiveness. “I don’t think people are really working together, and I don’t think there is a solution to that except one that is completely emotionally unsatisfying to people who get a lot of joy from seeing partisan porn on the internet,” Gardner muses. In our personal survey, liberals rated the importance of bipartisan unity and compromise 3.5 out of five on average. Center-left liberals gave a rating of 4.75 out of five.
With a plurality of respondents rating the importance of political unity greater than three, 57% of liberal respondents gave a four or five rating out of a five point scale. It therefore seems that compromise is a future most are hoping for. “If people are invested in their communities and know their neighbors who they disagree with and like them, there’s a chance that they’ll be willing to see people as people and not enemies on Reddit and 4Chan and Twitter who must be destroyed at all cost,” Gardner explains. However, 43% of liberal respondents, a large minority, gave a rating of a 3 at most—leaving plenty of room for continued partisan division. “Unity is not necessary to bring about change, but it is evermore helpful. Conversation is necessary but unity is not,” my second interviewee states, “It has never been unity that has gotten us to where we are but the persistent fight of those who believe what is good.”
That is the great divide: the battle between perceived good and evil. This sentiment is carried through to all aspects of a person’s life, and our survey showed that 52% of liberals would not date or marry a conservative, and only 10% would possibly marry one. “Political affiliation isn’t the best proxy for values and whether or not someone is a good person,” Gardner says. Conversely, my second interviewee claims that political views can be helpful partial representations of an individual’s goodness: “Usually, but not always. Someone’s political views are like looking at the icing on the cake, but it isn’t that you cut deep into it that you see what makes up the cake…it can never give you a full picture because there are always reasons people do what they do and say what they say.”
Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, the major theme from liberal voices was that something needs to change in how we treat one another. “There has to be a change in how they [conservatives] approach dealing with the other side,” Gardner said, “There seems to be a lot of demonization…my only recommendation there would be to try to give an honest hearing to your friends…validate the emotions behind their concerns even if you disagree with it. Try to be there for your friends.”
Correction: After publication, it came to our attention that one of this article’s interviewees no longer wants her name included in print. We have therefore removed her name. It also came to our attention that the author did not mean to describe “New Zealand, Russia, and the UK” as “European countries.” The word “European” has since been removed from the aforementioned phrasing.