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America is Polarized: Truth or Propaganda?

In recent years, civil discourse in the United States has become increasingly toxic. Congress has failed to address many key public policy concerns because polarization—and more recently obstructionism—places mounting obstacles to compromise and collaboration. Are we headed down a slippery slope toward more division and crass power politics or are we at a turning point where popular support is growing for forging constructive solutions to our nation’s problems?

Existential Threats
The phrase “existential threats” has recently begun to permeate our consciousness. Traditional policy differences over issues such as gun control, abortion, and health care appear to have been superseded by a spectrum of issues many perceive to pose an “existential” threat to their way of life:

Today’s Growing “Spectrum” of Existential Threats

This shift can be attributed to three key drivers:

  1. People are threatened by the pace of change and/or the dynamics of globalization. Rapidly changing technology accelerates this sense of losing control. Many do not see a way to regain the status quo and believe these changes will only get worse.
  2. Unresponsive politicians (and a dysfunctional political system) exacerbate public frustrations. In fact, some politicians are purposely exploiting and intensifying these issues for power and profit. The move toward majority/minority communities, in particular, is trumpeted as an existential threat to one’s identity.
  3. People’s concerns are falsely bolstered and reinforced by social media networks, advertising algorithms, and cable news. The misleading information then is amplified by ubiquitous echo chambers.

Many who participated in the January attack on the US Capitol building said they had to act to avoid seeing their way of life destroyed. Are we to expect more such insurrections? Are people becoming more desperate? Or is this a misinterpretation of how the public really thinks?

Taking a Second Look
A review of recent public opinion polls suggests that the American public is much less divided over many of these core issues. For example:

  • 70% of US adults say they favor the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. (2021 Pew Research)
  • 71% have received or plan to get the COVID vaccine. (Feb 2021 ABC News/Gallup Poll)
  • 80% strongly support government legislation regarding infrastructure. (2020 Gallup Poll)
  • 92% support background checks for all gun sales. (2018 Gallup poll)
  • 82% favor laws that would protect LGBT people against discrimination (2021 Public Religion Research Institute) and 70% favor the Equality Act. (2021 Hart Research)
  • 77% worry about the ability of public schools to provide quality education to tomorrow’s students. (2019 Pew Research)
  • 75% favor passing the DREAM Act permitting undocumented immigrant children to stay in the United States legally if certain conditions are met. (2020 Pew Research)
  • 58% believe “major changes” are needed to improve police practices, and 96% support changing management practices so that officer abuses are punished. (2021 Gallup Poll)
  • 60% favor dramatically reducing the use of fossil fuels in the next 10-20 years. (2019 Gallup Poll)

A “glass half full” reading of this polling data would suggest that the foundation exists for designing collaborative solutions to many of the nation’s problems. Even if you dispute the percentages or polling methodology, by far the majority of Americans appear to favor seeking constructive solutions.

In many cases, two-thirds or even three-fourths of Americans would be able to reach consensus on how best to address many of the nation’s most vexing problems, such as police/community interaction, quality education, and even health care. What appears to be lacking are sufficient incentives for politicians to come to the table and work out the necessary compromises.

Will the coming months be dominated by news of obstruction and debates over abolishing the filibuster or by the emerging power of centrist forces (such as the Problem-Solvers Caucus in the House of Representatives) to negotiate bipartisan solutions that address America’s looming challenges?  Time will tell.

The next two issues of the Analytic Insider will address strategies for engaging in a more constructive dialogue and the potential role of intelligence analysts in support of this process.