It seems that the only thing Americans can agree on is that we are living in an era of extreme political polarization. As we head into the 2020 presidential campaign, a striking 91 percent of people said in a recent PRRI survey that the country is divided over politics. This is higher than the percentage of people who reported that America is divided over issues of race and ethnicity (83 percent) or religion (77 percent).
Democrats and Republicans have long disagreed over policies, but in recent years the disagreement has turned personal. In that PRRI poll, more people were displeased by the thought that their child would marry someone of a different political party than of a different religion.
Worrying about decades of Thanksgiving dinners with relatives who support the other party might sound like clear evidence that America is hopelessly, alarmingly divided.
But there’s also a growing body of evidence that we’re overstating the divide. The real issue, it turns out, might not be with polarization. It might just be that most people really don’t like politics. Americans are open to people with all sorts of political and partisan opinions, our research shows — as long as they keep those opinions to themselves.
We conducted a series of experiments and surveys with more than 6,000 people during the 2016 and 2018 national elections. Like other recent polls and surveys, ours asked people whether they would be happy or unhappy if they had a child who married someone from the opposing party, Republican or Democratic.
But we added a new piece of information to this question, which said how often that new in-law would talk about politics. When people learned that their future in-law would rarely discuss politics, fewer than 30 percent said that they would be unhappy with an in-law from the opposing party. On the other hand, when we specified that the hypothetical in-law would never shut up about politics — he or she would interrupt social gatherings and holidays with the latest Trump dirt from MSNBC or Hannity tirade from Fox — more than 40 percent of people would be unhappy with the marriage.
This is especially true for those who do not strongly identify with a party, which includes nearly two-thirds of Americans. In this group, fewer than 20 percent said they would be unhappy with an in-law from the opposing party who rarely discussed politics. When, instead, their child’s chosen partner was a talkative member of the opposing party, this number doubled to 40 percent.
Polarization, however, is not just about disliking the other side. True polarization is when you dislike the other party and really like your own party. Most people do not care enough about politics to say they are “happy” simply because their child is marrying someone from their political party. So when people in our studies were asked to consider a future in-law who rarely discussed politics, only 15 percent could be considered truly polarized. While this number grew to 25 percent among people who have strong connections to their party, it shrank to 10 percent of weak partisans.
Polarization is also low among weak partisans when they are told that the in-law will frequently talk about politics. Weak partisans aren’t happy with an in-law from the opposing party discussing politics, but many are just as unhappy with an in-law from their own party who insists on political conversation.
Other studies suggest, much like ours, that somewhere between 15 percent and 20 percent of Americans are truly polarized. In the 2018 American Family Survey, for example, only 21 percent of participants reported that it was important for a married couple to be of the same party. Meanwhile, 81 percent said agreement in feelings about children was pivotal to a marriage.
Looking beyond marriage, a survey conducted by The New York Times found that only 16 percent of people placed their political party membership among the top three terms they used to describe themselves. When the political scientists James Druckman and Matthew Levendusky asked Americans to rank six identities in the order of personal importance, partisanship tied for last (alongside class).
If only a minority of people are polarized, why do 87 percent of Americans think, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey, political polarization is “threatening” to the American way of life? It may be about how we talk about politics.
Those who are most polarized also have the strongest connection to their party. A survey we conducted during the 2018 election suggests that these people are also most likely to be vocal about their political opinions. For example, the polarized are twice as likely to say they post on social media about politics. These people have deep partisan connections — and some can become what the political scientist Eitan Hersh terms “political hobbyists”: emotionally invested in political outcomes, loud and persistent. It is not difficult to imagine how these voices can ruin an otherwise enjoyable Thanksgiving celebration.
The polarized also get the most media attention. Compared with the year 2000, today one can expect to see 20 percent more stories about polarization in the news.
This amplification of the polarized can leave people weary of the opposing party. If the polarized are who comes to mind when Americans imagine a partisan, it is no wonder these Americans aren’t excited about that new in-law who supports the other party.
But this hesitation is not the same as animosity and polarization. Some people might genuinely hate the other party. These people may get the most attention, but they are also outnumbered by the majority who just want to discuss other things than politics.
Samar Klar is an associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona. Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan are associate professors of political science at Stony Brook University.
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