As we head off to vote in the most consequential election of our lifetimes, we are more divided as a nation than at any time since the Civil War.
Many Americans seem to view Donald Trump as a populist savior. Many more view him as a threat to democracy and the rule of law. If Americans do not demonstrate on Nov. 6 that they want Trump held accountable, we are headed for unrest unseen in this country since the civil rights and antiwar movements.
The nature of America’s deep partisan divides is described in great detail in “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape”, a 160-page report issued this year by More in Common, an international initiative aimed at helping communities and societies resist polarization. The More in Common strategy is to “Develop and deploy positive narratives that tell a new story of ‘us,’ celebrating what we all have in common rather than what divides us.”
“Hidden Tribes” is based on a survey of 8,000 respondents, 30 one-hour interviews and six focus groups. What the mainstream media chose to focus on in the report was the finding that 80 percent of Americans believe political correctness is a problem in this country. Since the survey did not define “political correctness,” we can assume it meant different things to different people. When I hear anyone complain about political correctness it is usually someone making excuses for their own bigotry.
Another major finding of the survey was that 82 percent of Americans agree that hate speech is a problem in this country, but, again, what constitutes hate speech depends on who’s doing the hating and the speaking. The most positive finding was that 77 percent of Americans believe we can overcome polarization and come together as a nation. I hope so, but when I look to my right and see that angry mob of Trump supporters, I have to wonder how.
The report breaks Americans down to seven hidden tribes based on ideology. Progressive Activists (8 percent of the population) are characterized as “younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.” My tribe, Traditional Liberals (11 percent), are “older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.” Then there are Passive Liberals (15 percent) who are “unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.”
In the middle ground we have the Politically Disengaged tribe (26 percent) that is “young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial” and the Moderates (15 percent) who are “engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.”
On the right wing we have Traditional Conservatives (19 percent), described as “religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic” and the Devoted Conservatives (6 percent) who are “white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising, patriotic.”
“Hidden Tribes” designates the 33 percent who are Progressive Activists, Traditional Conservatives and Devoted Conservatives as the Wings, while the rest of us are the Exhausted Majority. The Wings are the troublemakers in this country, which underscores that conservatives (25 percent) are mostly to blame for the mess we are in.
Overall, “Hidden Tribes” graphs out a nation pretty evenly divided on most hot-button issues: Immigration is a good thing (51 percent) versus immigration is a bad thing (49 percent), sexual harassment is commonplace (49 percent) versus too many ordinary behaviors are labelled as sexual harassment (51 percent), police are more violent toward African-Americans (51 percent) versus police are fair to everyone (49 percent), athletes have a right to take a knee during the anthem (49 percent) versus players should be forced to stand (51 percent).
On the divisive figure of Donald J. Trump, 57 percent disapprove while 43 percent approve.
The most dramatic differences – surprise, surprise – are between Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives. For example, while 78 percent of respondents said they were proud to be an American, 91 percent of Devoted Conservative were proud compared to only 45 percent of Progressive Activists.
“Hidden Tribes” is a fascinating, detailed study of a fractured American population. But, after all the charts, graphs and percentages, what it does not do is provide much of a solution to the problem it documents. It simply calls on politicians, business leaders, philanthropists, nonprofits, the media and tech companies to focus more on what we have in common than on what divides us.
If you’ve been as appalled as I have at the relentless viciousness of political ads on television this season, you know just how deep the national wound is that must be healed.
The worst of these ads is a vile Future 45 super-PAC ad warning that “voting for any Democrat gets you” screaming, violence, death threats, socialism, undefended open borders, tax increases, 100 percent government-run health care, Nancy Pelosi, gridlock, impeachment and an end to the booming economy. As long as television stations are making big bucks airing trash like this, we have little hope of uniting America’s hidden tribes.
Now go vote as though the future of America depends on it, because it does.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.