But even in a deeply polarized country, Americans still manage to find common ground on certain ideas, past public-opinion surveys show.
For instance, 71% of Americans — 74% of Democrats, 78% of Republicans and 66% of Independents — say they believe that “Americans have more in common with each other than many people think,” according to a national survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted in July for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. And 81% (77% of Democrats, 91% of Republicans and 78% of Independents) agree that “without our freedoms, America is nothing.”
A key takeaway from the poll “is that Americans are indeed fed up with polarization,” John Shattuck, a Carr Center senior fellow who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under former President Bill Clinton, told MarketWatch.
“They don’t like to be at each other’s throats,” he said. “They really believe they have more in common, and they want that belief to overcome the polarization.”
Majorities of Americans also consider the rights to clean air and water (94% of Democrats, 95% of Republicans and 92% of Independents), a quality education (94%, 91% and 91%, respectively), protection of personal data (95%, 94% and 92%), affordable health care (94%, 84% and 88%), and a job (91%, 77% and 85%) to be “essential rights important to being an American today,” according to the survey.
‘The country is politically very divided — we knew that going into the election, to be sure, and I don’t think the poll necessarily overturns that perception. On the other hand, I think it’s important that there are values that are broader than the political differences.’
These results track with Americans’ views on more traditional rights such as voting, equal protection, free speech, equal opportunity, privacy and racial equality, which 90% or more of respondents across the political spectrum say they regard as “essential rights,” the same survey found. Smaller majorities across partisan lines say the same of religious liberty, the right to bear arms and LGBTQ rights.
Among people who believe that rights like voting, free speech and racial equality aren’t secure, respondents from across the political spectrum agreed some of the greatest threats to those rights include “government,” “politicians” and “other Americans.”
The poll also showed that “events of recent months,” such as the pandemic and “economic and racial crises,” had made 85% of respondents “think differently about the role and responsibility of government in protecting rights” and made 83% think differently about “the responsibility of citizens to fellow citizens.”
On the COVID-19 front, 53% of respondents (61% of Democrats, 40% of Republicans and 54% of Independents) said they’d be willing to sacrifice some personal freedoms to benefit public health, though 54% overall were unwilling to sacrifice privacy for the same goal.
“The country is politically very divided — we knew that going into the election, to be sure, and I don’t think the poll necessarily overturns that perception,” Shattuck said. “On the other hand, I think it’s important that there are values that are broader than the political differences, and one of those sets of values involves rights and responsibilities of citizens.”
Americans don’t like being divided
The Carr Center’s poll isn’t the only one to suggest that Americans have grown weary of their divisions. A Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos poll released in December found that majorities of Republicans, Democrats, Independents and apolitical people agree there’s more common ground among Americans than the news media and political leaders portray — and 93% of Republicans, 94% of Democrats and 95% of Independents say it’s important for the country to try to decrease divisiveness.
Seven in 10 Republicans, eight in 10 Democrats and three-fourths of Independents say the inability to constructively disagree is driven from the top down, with leaders setting the tone, that survey found.
Meanwhile, despite divergent views on immigrants and national identity, a majority of Americans (three in four Democrats and roughly half of Republicans) believe diversity makes the U.S. stronger, according to an Associated Press-NORC poll conducted in September of 2019. And at least three in four respondents from both major parties consider constitutionally defined liberties, a fair judicial system, and the ability of people living in the U.S. to “to get good jobs and achieve the American Dream” to be “very important.”
Majorities of both major parties (83% of Democrats and Democrat leaners and 62% of Republicans and GOP leaners) also say American corporations have too much power, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted September of 2019. And 58% of Americans favor raising tax rates on households making more than $250,000.
‘I used to have an assignment in my class where I challenged students to identify an issue on which there’s a consensus. And I’ve had to stop using that assignment because it’s too difficult.’
Consensus on abstract ideas, but disagreement on ‘how you actually get there’
Americans tend to find greater agreement on abstract issues like democracy, “one man, one vote,” freedom of speech and freedom of religion, said Darren Davis, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, but “don’t agree on how to approach those issues.”
“On the broader important issues, there may be some consensus — but how you actually get there is where the disagreement occurs,” Davis told MarketWatch.
While Americans might agree on the importance of civil rights and civil liberties, Davis said by way of example, they disagree on specific issues like affirmative action. They will agree that people should have freedom of speech, he added, “but when it comes down to a Muslim speaking, that’s where it’s going to break down.”
“I used to have an assignment in my class where I challenged students to identify an issue on which there’s a consensus,” he said. “And I’ve had to stop using that assignment because it’s too difficult.”
The country’s polarization results in part from “political leaders who are telling us to be polarized; who are telling us that we need to disagree,” Davis said. Shattuck also pointed to misinformation and disinformation being disseminated by political leaders and on social media platforms.
“We live in a world where people live in different realities,” Shattuck said. “That’s larger than the immediate political controversies that we face.”
‘When you talk about polarization and inability to compromise or inability to work together, I don’t think that’s the case between American people — I think that’s the case between political elites.’
Voters want politicians to compromise
With that said, Jennifer Wolak, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder, suggests there’s an “overly pessimistic narrative” on polarization.
The parties have indeed become “more ideologically distinctive” in Congress, and a greater share of voters exist on ideological extremes than in the past, but “we have the most voters in the middle or just right or just left of that middle,” she told Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine in an interview published last month.
While there are partisans on both ends, “it’s not the case that we have this sort of U-shaped distribution of die-hard Democrats or die-hard Republicans,” she said. By and large, voters want politicians to compromise, she added.
“When you talk about polarization and inability to compromise or inability to work together, I don’t think that’s the case between American people — I think that’s the case between political elites,” Samara Klar, a political scientist at the University of Arizona, told MarketWatch. “Unfortunately, at the elite level, that is where we see two parties who seem pretty intent on blocking each other and refusing to allow each other to govern.”
The country broadly agrees on one other matter, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted late September to early October: that the next commander-in-chief should be a president for everyone, not just the people who voted for him.
About 86% of Trump supporters and leaners and 89% of Biden supporters and leaners say that if their candidate is elected (or re-elected), he should focus primarily on addressing the concerns of all Americans — even if that means disappointing some supporters.