Does disunity in America matter? Fewer people say bridging political divides is vital


A poll in 2019 found that 65% of Americans said it was very important to reduce divisiveness. Now, only 48% hold that opinion.

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A declining share of Americans believe it is “very important” to reduce divisiveness or to find better ways to understand people whose political affiliations are different from their own, a new poll from Public Agenda/USA TODAY has found. It’s a striking difference from previous research and a nod to the politically polarized country America has become. 

A similar Hidden Common Ground poll in 2019 found that 65% of Americans said it was very important to reduce divisiveness. Now, fewer than half (48%) hold that opinion.

The survey, of 2,219 Americans in August, focused on the role spirituality and religion play in people’s lives and in their decision-making in the voting booth. Americans who identify as both spiritual and religious – the poll did not define spirituality for participants – are more likely to have their beliefs factor into their political views and voting decisions, especially Republicans. 

Among the survey’s key findings:

►75% of Republicans who are both religious and spiritual say their religion influences their political views. That is true of 61% of Democrats and 51% of independents.

►About 40% of Americans overall, including about 60% of Republicans, say that a politician’s religious beliefs or spiritual values are important in deciding who to vote for.

 ►About two-thirds of Americans, including about half of Republicans, believe it is a problem if politicians make decisions based on their religious beliefs or spiritual values.

Additionally, people who are both religious and spiritual are more willing to attempt to build bridges with those who have differing political beliefs, are more likely to say they’ve previously done that and are committed to trying to understand others’ beliefs. 

 “People who are both religious and spiritual, they’re really up for this stuff,” said David Schleifer, the vice president and director of research at Public Agenda. 

Religious, spiritual views influence voting

Schleifer said the results of  the survey revealed to him that “people who are religious and spiritual, they’re different. I’ve done a lot of research on different policy issues and divisiveness and never really thought about religion or paid attention to it – but I think it’s something we’ve been overlooking.”  

That’s particularly true when examining how many people – Democrats, Republicans and independents – say their religious  or spiritual views influence their voting decisions. 

“It’s very easy to dismiss this or assume it’s just a Republican phenomenon, and that’s not the case,” Schleifer said. “It’s also true for most Democrats who are both religious and spiritual and about half of independents who are religious and spiritual.” 

Opinion: ‘Not left or right, but deep’: How people of faith can help heal America’s divisions

Another  finding that jumped out to Schleifer: Most people think the degree of America’s divisiveness has been exaggerated by the news media and politicians. 

Charles Campbell, a landscaper who lives in a New Orleans suburb and participated in the poll, said he doesn’t necessarily think America is more divided today compared to 10 or 20 years ago —  Americans are just more aware of the divisions and differing opinions and beliefs because of social media. 

“We’re more connected now as far as communication, but we are divided because we see more (of what people think),” Campbell, 42, said.  

Another poll participant, Lynne Richardson from Oakland, New Jersey, agreed that  media outlets have  helped to foster the country’s deepening divides. 

“A lot of these cable stations are catering to division,” said Richardson, 56, who works part time in a college registrar’s office.  She said many news outlets “keep feeding” Americans reasons to be divisive, too, often focusing on the extremes of both sides of an issue. 

The  political climate in the U.S. reminds Richardson of Ireland’s  deep divisions during the Troubles, the political strife  in Northern Ireland  from about 1968 to 1998.  As Richardson remembers it, a lot of people “just wouldn’t listen to each other – they just kept shouting the same things at one another.” 

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Richardson, who spent time in Ireland while in college, said of refusing to listen to the other side. 

Richardson, who does not identify as either religious or spiritual, sees an advantage in trying to understand Americans who have different beliefs and opinions from her own. 

“I’m not going to give up a friendship with someone who’s generous and kind and loyal just because they have different political beliefs,” she said.  “That’s really cutting off your nose to spite your face.” 

Counting on younger generations to pull together

Campbell said he’s counting on people younger than him, including his 22-year-old daughter, to bridge the gap. 

“I think (the divisiveness) is going to change and get better because the younger generation, they connect, they better understand what each other is going through, they listen to each other,” said Campbell. 

Campbell – a Baptist who said it’s important to him to vote for politicians who also identify as spiritual and “believe in a higher power” – credits his religion for his willingness to hear out people he might not agree with. 

“I don’t have a problem having conversations with those types of people,” he said. He added that when  he sees someone on Facebook post a comment that he disagrees with, he doesn’t just delete that friend or ignore the comment. “I would comment and start a conversation and try to understand why they said that … communication is how we learn each other.” 

In Burlington, North Carolina, Bobby Clark, another poll participant, is also willing to have conversations with people who have a different point of view  – but  he doesn’t listen because he’s not necessarily open to changing his opinion or beliefs. 

“I do try to understand other people’s side unless it’s too far-fetched,” said Clark, 62.  “I’m like this: ‘I’ve got what I believe and I’m staying with it. You can tell me what you’re believing in, but you probably can’t persuade me to go your way.’” 

Clark, who attends a nondenominational church, said Americans in general have a lot more in common than not. But he pushed back on the notion that divisiveness has been exaggerated by the media and politicians. 

“For me, as a Black man in this world, I think we are strongly divided – and (that division) is even worse than it was back in the 1960s” during segregation and the Civil Rights movement, he said. 

Clark said divisions in  the U.S.  are linked to the same cause: white supremacy. And he doesn’t have faith much will change  in his lifetime. 

But like Campbell in New Orleans, Clark has hope for the future, even if he doesn’t think he’ll live to see it. 

“These new generations of Black kids, they’re not putting up with stuff like we did,” Clark said. “They’re strong, independent-minded and yes, they are more accepting (than older generations).” 

Is this a trend?

Yet, members of older generations are trying  to bridge gaps too. 

Lynaire Clipper, a retired dental assistant near Ann Arbor, Michigan, said her faith has taught her not only to be accepting of others’ beliefs but also to welcome discussion and debate. And while the 62-year-old Protestant said her beliefs are front of mind when she steps into the voting booth, she doesn’t believe she should “assert” those values on anyone else. 

She used abortion as an example: While Clipper  said she is  “pro-life,” she voted for the amendment that enshrined abortion rights in Michigan’s state constitution in the November elections.

Schleifer at Public Agenda isn’t sure if the survey results  signal a trend when it comes to how people who identify as religious and spiritual factor in their beliefs when they vote. He’s also not sure if their desire to find unity is something that will last.  

, He noted that the results of this poll do point to one certainty.  “We need more research,” Schleifer said with a laugh.