The Washington Post
We’re not as divided as we think
If you watch cable news, you’d be forgiven for thinking the United States is a country that has split itself in two, divided not only by divergent opinions but also by two very different political realities. This is the way cable news likes it, mind you. A pot well stirred keeps viewers turning in.
On the Tuesday after Labor Day, my lap through the usual morning news shows proved more cognitively dissonant than usual. This was primarily because CNN’S “New Day” programing included John Avlon’s consistently eye-opening segment, “Reality Check.” His lesson focused on whether the United States is as extremist as people seem to think it is.
In short, just how crazy are we? Not that crazy, it turns out. Sure, we’re polarized, but only 29 percent and 28 percent of Americans identify as Democratic or Republican, respectively, according to Gallup. Most of the rest, 41 percent, identify as independent. Yes, 67 percent of Americans think democracy is on the verge of collapse, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. But 66 percent of Americans also say Joe Biden is the legitimate president.
And, sure, we’ve sacrificed friendships over presidents and might yet again. But we’re not as divided as some pundits and ratings-driven TV producers would have us believe. Not even close. In fact, we’re really talking about a relatively small percentage of Americans who would qualify as “extremist.”
Avlon, who has dedicated most of his career to advancing centrism and fighting extremism, heaps credit on The Post’s Philip Bump, who did most of the numbercrunching that Avlon used in his own analysis. Both journalists focused, logically, on trying to understand the depth of support on the far right for undermining democracy.
To be an extremist by this definition, one must reject the 2020 election results; embrace candidates who also reject the results; approve of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol; and approve of violence as a political tool.
Surely, there can’t be many of those folks, I hear you thinking. And you’re right. There aren’t. Here’s where actual numbers come in handy: Remember, only 28 percent of Americans identify as Republican. Even if 66 percent of Republicans believe that Biden is illegitimate (as a July CNN poll found), that’s just a little over 18 percent of American adults. As Avlon pointed out, even if you add in the one-third of independents who lean Republican, you’re still talking about a minority.
A smaller portion of Americans say they’d support an election denier, or approve of the Capitol riot, or think violence is justifiable. So, yes, we’re divided on what happened in 2020, but we’re not talking halvsies here. We often talk of our nation as split right down the middle. But the data show that we’re really only talking about a slice that qualifies as extremist.
Wait, wait, what about all those Democratic socialists on the other side? Aren’t they extremists, too? They might be, but they’re also a tiny sliver of the population. If you count the Democratic Socialists of America, that’s probably fewer than 100,000 people, or about .03 percent of the U.S. population, says Avlon. That’s not scary at all.
Here is the larger point: We should be spending much less time talking about the extremists on the right or left. We’ve always had them and survived. We may be at a turning point in TV viewing — there is evidence people are turning away from both broadcast and cable. The ugly cultural issues that politicians and activists have long used to divide us obscure the fact that Americans tend to agree on many things: About 70 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage and cannabis legalization, according to Gallup, and about twothirds of Americans are pro-choice.
Military journalist Thomas E. Ricks wrote in Monday’s Post that the threat of another American civil war is, in his view, now in the past. Saying he had long worried we were cascading toward such a war because he saw right-wing groups as “heavily influenced” by white nationalism, he’s less pessimistic now — encouraged in part because, so far, other riots have not occurred.
Yet, if you channel-surf the morning and evening cable “news” shows, you’ll probably think we’re about to implode. One of the things cable shows noticed after President Donald Trump was defeated was that fewer people were tuning in. The electrical charge that was Trump created historic ratings spikes that enriched his critics and supporters alike.
But as viewership wanes, so, too, go tempers and resentments, leading to the conclusion that the dueling political realities of talk TV may finally have run its course.
Happily, we’re not crazy enough to watch it anymore.