Our Polarization Doesn’t Have to be Permanent

The nation is angry and people are talking past one another, but there are a few reasons for optimism.

For almost two decades now, I have been studying polarization and American political culture and I have repeatedly made the argument that while a small number of political elite in this country think that they are at war with one another, most Americans are reasonable and are willing to hear the other side and find compromise.

This argument has been harder to make in recent months because survey after survey and even the tone of the first presidential debate suggests that the nation is angry, that people are talking past one another, and that Americans are hardened and unwilling to even listen to others. 

But, a more careful look at public opinion and attitudes leaves room for optimism.

New data as part of the Survey Center on American Life, a project of AEI, reveals that our polarized discourse is impacting most Americans. Yet, the data also shows that most Americans are still open minded enough to find common ground with others who disagree with them. And, the most open minded and reasonable Americans are the ones who are regularly overlooked and not represented on most political stages—those in Gen Z. These younger Americans are far less dogmatic and more open than their parents and grandparents and their attitudes, especially compared to their grandparents, show that while things might be bad, these newly enfranchised Americans are actually the path forward. 

The seemingly never ended socio-political rancor and anger in the nation is easy to find and comes up in the new data quickly. For instance, when Americans were asked about talking politics with someone with whom they disagree, respondents were queried if this is generally interesting and informative or stressful and frustrating. Today, 57 percent of Americans find this stressful and frustrating. If we go back to 2013 when Pew asked this question during President Obama’s second term, 53 percent found talking with someone who wasn’t like-minded politically interesting and information and just 43 percent found it stressful and frustrating. The stressful responses percentage has increased by a third in just seven years and captures a real change in how Americans think about and react to politics today. So when Americans state that politics seems harder and more contentious; the data suggests that these feelings are absolutely justified. 

Another example involves self-censorship among one’s immediate circle of friends which is something really problematic as one should be able to be honest in one’s intimate circles. Nevertheless, when asked about sharing and talking about political views which are different from one’s friends, the number of Americans who think that they should remain silent has grown. Back in 2016, 51 percent of Americans said that it was better to avoid talking about these differences because it usually makes things worse and just four years later into the Trump era, that figure grew to 57 percent. Today, just 42 percent of Americans today believe that they should talk about their political differences in order to try to find common ground; Americans are silencing and censoring themselves which is not good for real debate and discourse.

While these data are troubling as they are bad for, one’s psychology, our collective sense of community, and our democracy, they reflect responses to the state of the political world that can be improved and the data simultaneously show that Americans are still able to break away from this polarization and dangerous lack of discourse. 

As an example, most Americans believe that common ground can be found on most political issues. When the respondents were asked to choose between two statements about the issues they care most about, 79 percent believe that it is possible to compromise and find common ground with people who disagree with you and only 19 percent state that it is not possible to compromise and find common ground with people who disagree with you. 

The data also make it clear that Americans across the political spectrum feel this way: 79 percent of liberal identifiers believe that compromise is possible with the number being higher at 85 percent for moderates. While the figure dips a bit for conservatives at 73 percent, slight conservative and slight liberal identifiers jump back into the low 80s, making it clear that large majorities of Americans believe common ground can be found. This is encouraging and suggests we need to talk to one another and create avenues outside of extreme media outlets that amplify differences online. Instead, we need to promote the give and take that exists in the real world. 

Going further, I am hopeful because younger Americans—Gen Zers—are more likely to remain open and engaged and are far less dogmatic despite the widespread belief that they are all some liberal monolithic block. 

As an example, the survey asks Americans when they talk about politics with people whom they disagree with, do the respondents usually find that they have more or less in common politically than they thought. Sadly, 61 percent collectively claim that they find that they have less in common with others and just 37 percent find that they have more in common politically. But I am encouraged by the fact that the data also show that younger Americans are more likely to find more common ground than older Americans. 43 percent of Gen Zers argue that they found more in common politically than their grandparent baby boomers at 32 percent and Silent Generation members at 32 percent—so there is real difference here.

Furthermore, younger Americans are more open to ideas generally and this fact has been repeatedly observed among college students and applies here as well. The survey asked respondents to choose between whether they find themselves questioning their assumptions or whether they become more certain that their own views are right when they talk to people with different political views than their own. Collectively, the results are not encouraging: Just 39 percent of Americans pause to consider their views, while 58 percent hold that they become more certain that their views are right. Unsurprisingly, those who are more ideological hold more extreme positions here as well. Just 50 percent of moderates say that having dissonance makes them more certain about the truth in their views, compared to 61 percent of liberals and 73 percent of conservatives.

Nonetheless, optimism is warranted as generational effects are at play here too. Just 50 percent of those in Gen Z report becoming more certain that their own views are right when they are confronted by political difference. Tolerance and openness decreases with age such that 58 percent of Gen Xers and 61 percent of baby boomers have their views hardened when challenged. However, a significant number of younger Americans are more open here and this bodes well for the nation. Similarly, when asked about questioning the correctness of one’s political views, the survey found younger Americans are more likely to reexamine their views compared to older Americans. 

Finally, it is critical to note that the overall outlook about America is not uniform as we approach November. The survey asked if people think America's best days are ahead of us or behind us. In aggregate, 53 percent think that the future is still bright compared to 46 percent who think that America’s glory is in the past. Once again, though, younger Americans are bullish. 66 percent of those in Gen Z believe that America’s best days are ahead of us, though millennials and Gen X are less positive at 52 percent. Boomer parents are at 53 percent and Silents are at 50 percent—so there is a lot of clustering around the average but our youth are far more positive here. 

New survey data collected in the midst of our current period of turmoil has captured the fact that many Americans are silencing themselves and avoiding having tough conversations due to fear of interpersonal problems and associated stress of disagreement and this is not how a healthy citizenry works. However, when pushed about finding common ground, Americans still believe that they can get work with others and compromise. Moreover, the older and more ideologically closed generations are being replaced by those in Gen Z who are the most open and least dogmatic members of the American demos. Gen Z is more likely to question its political beliefs and be bullish on the future of America. Gen Z’s numbers will grow over time which gives me hope for these younger Americans have entered the electorate in the midst of this polarization, have grown up surrounding by a steady stream of media where truths and facts are hard to establish, and inherently thrive on hearing and compromising on many views which is exactly what the country needs to regain its proper political footing.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photograph of Notre Dame students participating in an event to foster healthy dialogue by Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images.