WASHINGTON – As Capitol Hill grows more politically toxic, a new survey indicates most Americans are tired of the acrimony and think the sharp partisan divide is harming the nation.
Nearly three of every four Americans said it would be good for the country if Americans “reject political hostility and divisiveness and focus more on their common ground,” according to the new poll from Public Agenda and USA TODAY released Thursday.
But they’re also pessimistic. Fewer than one in 10 surveyed think political rancor between ordinary Americans will decrease in the next 10 years, compared to nearly half who think it will increase.
“I don’t believe that everybody wants to get together,” said Phil Wesson, 74, a retired advertising agency owner from Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. “And maybe it’s just because I’m an old cynic, but I think everybody wants to get together as long as they agree with ‘my’ position.”
Wesson, a liberal Democrat who voted for Joe Biden, was among the 2,345 adults who responded to the Hidden Common Ground survey conducted by Ipsos in late September.
The survey was conducted less than a year after the Jan.6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob contesting the 2020 election that Biden won. It reflects the mood of an electorate that’s generally unhappy with its leaders, is adamant that the vitriolic tone of today’s politics is harmful to the nation’s interests, but pessimistic that change is around the corner.
But there is some good news: Most Americans value differences of opinion and dialogue, and many are trying to connect across partisan lines.
Americans’ broad support for increased civility stands in sharp contrast to the daily narrative coming out of Washington, where lawmakers openly trade insults and complain of a hostile work environment.
Democrats are weighing whether to discipline Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., after she made anti-Muslim comments about Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. Boebert’s comments led to a viral spat between House Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Nancy Mace of South Carolina. Greene called Mace “trash” for condemning Boebert while Mace used a series of emojis to denigrate Greene in her response.
In early November, the House voted to censure conservative Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., for tweeting a graphic anime-style video depicting him killing progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. and assaulting President Joe Biden.
And In February, the House removed Greene from her committees for actions that included posting a campaign ad of herself holding guns next to three members of the group of liberal lawmakers known as “The Squad”: Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.
“This sense of sort of intense division – there’s a lot of complicated factors feeding into it,” said Will Friedman, senior fellow at Public Agenda. “And a lot of it has to do with the fact that national political leadership is highly polarized and is finding it helpful to ramp up to the divisiveness within the country.”
Public feuds between national office holders who are supporters of former President Donald Trump and their moderate-to-progressive counterparts affect the lives of everyday people, said Sukparchai “Moss” Stephenson, 26, a paralegal from Nashua, New Hampshire, who participated in the survey.
“Friends and I were discussing the Rittenhouse trial. Some were saying that it was a sham,” Stephenson said about the trial of 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who was recently acquitted of shooting three people, fatally wounding two, during an anti-police violence protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020.
The teen, who had come to personify Second Amendment freedoms to some conservative Republicans, received a public congratulations from Trump. Several lawmakers, including Boebert, Gosar, Reps. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C. and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., offered Rittenhouse internships in congressional offices.
Stephenson, an ondependent, said he was accused of being a right-winger for pointing out misinformation in the Rittenhouse trial.
“We have since cleared the air on that and made more sense, but it was very disheartening to see that happen among your friend group,” he said.
Barbara Brown, 73, of Burlington, Kentucky, was a Republican until Trump became president. Now she says she’s never seen the country as divided.
“I blame it all on Trump,” said Brown, who also took part in the survey. “I think he wants to be king. He doesn’t believe in the democratic government. He wants all the power and he wants another civil war. He’s turning people against each other.”
Rosemary Moran, 82, a Trump supporter, blames the division more on generational differences than on partisan ones. Older voters have different values than younger ones, and it spills out in politics.
As for her own approach, the retired state prison teacher from Cressona, Pennsylvania, has some simple advice to avoid acrimony in her personal life.
“Politicians come and go but your friendships, your family, stay,” said Moran, who participated in the survey. “I have people in my family who I know are 100% Biden people, and I have my son, a true Trumper, who lives in a very, very liberal state. I tell them: ‘Don’t be that quick to tell people what you think. Listen. Don’t always talk. You could lose a job, lose a good friend. Not really worth it.”
Bill Doherty is a family therapist who co-founded Braver Angels, which promotes civil discourse among politically divided citizens and lawmakers. He said political rancor existed long before Trump, which is why it persists nearly a year after he left the White House. And he said it’s been fueled by leaders in Washington who use social media to amplify division, build attention and boost fundraising.
But Doherty, who’s also a University of Minnesota social science professor, said the poll includes a silver lining that could help the country heal.
“The beginning of change is naming the problem,” he said. “And it’s good news that Americans believe we are too divided because when you name it, you can start to ask the question: ‘How would we become less divided?’ As opposed to simply asking the question: ‘How can we make the other side wake up and see what they’re doing?'”
Some of the friction, says Public Agenda’s Friedman, derives from increasing racial diversity in the U.S., which stokes anxiety in some resistant to change.
Findings from the 2020 U.S. Census show the country’s white population shrunk for the first time in history, while the population of those identifying as multiracial rose from 9 million in 2010 to 33.8 million in 2020.
Friedman says Republicans and Democrats agree the U.S. is becoming more diverse, which is an opportunity for engagement.
“I think there’s just a lot more room to try to engage people and understand the underlying anxieties that some folks have. And I think a lot of people could be reassured if we’re able to kind of talk this stuff through and understand where people are coming from,” Friedman said.
“There’s probably a pretty hard edged subgroup, that would be hard to reach on this question and feel very, very defensive, very aggressive, about it. But there’s more people than meets the eye … you can have a conversation (with) and begin to try to address the things that are making them anxious,” he added.
National leadership could help facilitate the conversation, Friedman said, by helping improve the lives of common people.
“We’ve been trying to point that out across this entire series of surveys over the last couple of years,” Friedman said. “I think that if you concentrated on the areas where there’s common ground – such as around voting rights, as we saw in this survey – I think that you could create a more unifying agenda. And if you’re actually able to create solutions that affected people’s lives and better their communities, they will help to bring people together.”
Among the survey’s key findings:
- Nearly three-quarters of Americans (72%) think it would be “good for the country” if Americans reject political hostility and focus more on areas of mutual agreement. Those identifying themselves as Democrat (75%) or Republicans (80%) were even more inclined to agree with that sentiment.
- Only 9% of Americans think that political rancor between ordinary Americans will decrease in the next 10 years. A 42% plurality thinks it will increase, led both by Republicans and Independents (each at 46%).
- Four in 10 Americans (including 52% of Republicans) believe it would be good if “a strong, charismatic leader gains power and is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain control and run the country in the way he or she thinks is best.” And more than half (53%) believe that will happen within the next decade.
- Three in 10 Americans have “very unfavorable” feelings toward either Republican or Democratic voters. This includes 18% who view GOP voters that way and 13% who feel the same about Democratic voters.
- Despite the increasing political acrimony, most Americans reject the notion of splitting the country into red and blue states with 51% saying it would be “very bad” and 19% saying it would be “somewhat bad.”
- About three-quarters of Americans say they value different political perspectives and nearly half (45%) say that, in the last 12 months, they have often or sometimes had a constructive conversation about politics with someone holding opposite views.