America’s polarisation is an elite pursuit

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I have long thought that America’s culture wars get more toxic the higher up the education ladder you go. Most people simply don’t have time to indulge in the moral grandstanding that so often dominates social media. This is especially true of the vicious divisions over how to view US history — a subject on which I’ve written before. It is thus with some relief — indeed a degree of pleasure — that I read this excellent new report by More in Common, a non-partisan research group that first made a splash in 2018 with its findings on America’s “hidden tribes”, the largest of which was the country’s “exhausted majority”.

Those who picked up on the report will remember that just 8 per cent of Americans defined themselves as “progressive activists” while 6 per cent call themselves “devoted conservatives”. To be sure, those two headings conceal a multitude of sins. Nor do I wish to imply false equivalence. The latter, for example, includes white nationalists, who I think deserve their own tailor-made stocks and an unending deluge of rotten eggs and tomatoes. But that’s just me. The point is that these two wings define America’s public debate, which casts the remaining 86 per cent of the country as putty in their hands.

Fanatics alter society far more frequently than more ambivalent types since the latter tend to see more than one side to a question, or can’t be bothered to address it. So I draw no false comfort from these findings. I should also underline that some fanatics are good people who change history for the better: Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie was no moderate. But it is rash to ignore the fact that political obsessives are bending America out of shape. More in Common’s “Defusing the History Wars” offers plenty of ammunition to take them on. Put simply, devoted conservatives see America’s founding fathers as flawless individuals who wrote an unimprovable constitution. They are the 1776-ers. The 1619-ers, on the other hand, see America as a project built on slavery and permanently defined by its racial legacy. There is little room for any subtleties between these poles. The reality is that most Americans reject both positions. They are just unaware they are in the majority. The authors call this the “perception gap” — the difference between what we imagine an opposing group to believe and what it actually believes.

Here are some arresting examples. Eighty-seven per cent of Democrats believe that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln should be admired for their roles in American history. Just 42 per cent of Republicans believe that Democrats think this (a perception gap of 45 per cent). Ninety-two per cent of Democrats think the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution advanced freedom and equality against the 45 per cent estimated by Republicans (47 per cent gap). By the same token, 93 per cent of Republicans believe that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks should be taught as example of Americans who fought for equality, though only 35 per cent of Democrats estimated that (a 58 percentage point gap). Eighty-three per cent of Republicans think that American students should be taught about slavery, Jim Crow and segregation versus 32 per cent of Democrats who estimated that. And so on.

The report accords with my anecdotal experience of Americans beyond the fetid confines of the Washington beltway. To one degree or another, most Americans think their country is deeply flawed but with an often inspiring history that ought to be taught in full — the good and the bad. They show much more wisdom than the fanatics who manipulate them.

Why doesn’t America understand this about itself? The short answer is to point to the role of “conflict entrepreneurs” whose mission is to maximise controversy and demonise those who disagree. I call them the heretic hunters. They define the contours of a national debate that badly refracts what most people think. They then convince most people to think the worst of the other side. One of my intellectual lodestars, scholar Benedict Anderson, wrote about the “imagined communities” that make up nations. America, by this token, is rife with imagined enemies most of whom (though by no means all, of course) are far more innocuous than we think.

This isn’t the place to delve into the details of social media algorithms and how they prioritise hate as a business model. We know how Meta, YouTube and Twitter make their money. Ultimately, we are on their menu, not at their table. I spend quite a bit of time decrying poor thinking and bad faith actors. I want to devote this note to the impressive researchers at More in Common, who illuminate a far less nihilistic America than the one we keep hearing about. Rana, you should brace yourself for a shock: I am not remotely outraged. What’s going on here? Do you share my anecdotal experience?

  • My column this week looks at the continued leakage of blue collar support from the Democratic Party — America’s shipwrecked working class. Democrats talk a great working class game but are increasingly a party of graduates.

  • I also recommend my colleague Gideon Rachman on Australia, China and the judgment of the Solomons, not just for its creative headline but for its thoughtful content on the Indo-Pacific’s geopolitical stakes.

  • Many Swampians will now be suffering from outrage deficiency syndrome. I have a cure. Read this Atlantic profile on what motivates Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is probably the single biggest generator of outrage in America.

  • I attended the very moving memorial service last week for our colleague, the late great David Gardner, at Fleet Street’s St Bride’s Church. To get a sense of David’s remarkable intellect and contributions to journalism, as well as his abiding moral courage, do read my colleague Martin Wolf’s fine oration here.

Rana Foroohar responds

Well, all I can say to this is, I’m not remotely surprised. It very much mirrors my own personal experience growing up in Normal America, which is the majority of the country outside the most extreme concentrations of wealth and power.

As we’ve discussed in Notes past, my feeling is that much of the perceptions of extremism on either side in the US are driven by a media conversation that rarely ventures out of its own, small orbit (like most journalists). In 2019, I wrote a Note that looked at the political perception gap between Democrats and Republicans, which was based on a large YouGov survey. It found that both traditional and social media fanned the flames of the perception gap, and the biggest misperceptions were among poor Republicans and over-educated Democrats (which reflects some of the points in your own column).

The people who had the most realistic assessment of each other were those who engaged in less media and mostly middle market stuff — like the nightly network news, which is very much geared towards a purple political middle. Perhaps we as journalists need to examine more closely our own role in conflict entrepreneurship.

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