Yes, America is divided. The real story is how, why, and who benefits

That the nation under Trump is politically polarized – with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other – has become a cliché of American political journalism.

As it happens, the plurality of Americans actually identify as independents (38 percent, according to Gallup), rather than Democrats (31 percent) or Republicans (30 percent). So the cliché is not technically accurate.

But the bigger problem is that there are more interesting, significant and enlightening ways to examine the rifts in our political culture. (Read my primer on how the old labels don’t properly capture today’s political divisions.)

Arguably, the most elemental political divide these days is between people who still believe in facts, and people who don’t.

Elite media figures acknowledge that the two sides don’t share basic facts anymore. But they’re too timid to say which side’s “facts” are facts and which side’s are fantasy. They certainly can’t bring themselves to say how we got there – or more specifically, how the Republican Party drove us there over the last decade or more, culminating in Trumpism.

So you have NBC’s Chuck Todd lamenting over the fact that “Democrats are trying to have a conversation about what the president did. And Republicans are having a completely different conversation. As — we couldn’t even agree on the same set of facts.”

New York University professor Jay Rosen tweeted about what was missing:

Sometimes these elite reporters even lend their own voice to arguments they know are spurious, as former Obama speechwriter and podcast host Jon Favreau tweeted:

But Wait! There’s More!

There’s another, maybe even more important political divide explored in a marvelous and thought-provoking manifesto from Monika Bauerlein, the CEO of Mother Jones.

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet made a snotty comment about Mother Jones the other day as he opined that being “the leaders of the resistance to Donald Trump” would be “an untenable, nonjournalistic, immoral position for the New York Times”.

Bauerlein responded by slamming the Times for being so invested in “being seen as neutral arbiters of political discourse” that it overreacts to “being characterized otherwise” and “end[s] up missing important stories—or overdoing it on not-so-important ones as a result.”

But this, to me, is the biggest takeaway:

The fundamental mistake that conventional Washington journalism has made over the past four years is to imagine all of politics as two-dimensional—Democrat to Republican, left to right, with far too little attention to the many other fault lines that run through, across, and at a diagonal to that distinction. One of the most important of these other fault lines is the one between those who stand for democracy, with a small d, and those who abet authoritarianism and minority rule.

The Times can’t and shouldn’t be part of a capital-R, partisan Resistance, but it better damn well be part of the lowercase-r resistance against authoritarianism and illiberalism. And if leaders like Baquet are worried about taking sides against the latter, they are failing (not to get grandiose, but dammit, it’s Defcon One here) their sacred mission.

Amen. And even if journalists aren’t willing to take sides in this divide, they sure could address it more directly in their work.

Yet More Divides

There’s one divide the elite media accentuates: between old white folks sitting at diners, whose political views are apparently endlessly fascinating to journalists at major news outlets, and pretty much everyone else, whose views never seem to get covered at all.

The Associated Press brought us one of those stories the other day, ostensibly making the case that public impeachment hearings “aren’t moving the needle.”

The government editor for NPR’s Pittsburgh affiliate weighed in:

Here’s another axis to consider. I saw the New York Times’s deep dive into the divides within the abortion-rights community as exposing a broader one between liberal elites in Washington who were celebrating a golden age under Obama and folks outside the Beltway, who saw how a lot of things were actually going to shit.

The Impeachment Divide

In record time, the notion that views of impeachment are split and hardened has become gospel among top political journalists.

“[W]hich message is sticking across the country?” the New York Times asked recently. Then it answered:

Even more than with most issues, opinions on impeachment divide along partisan lines. While public opinion has fluctuated some since House leaders announced the impeachment inquiry two months ago, overwhelming majorities of Democratic and Republican voters continue to line up behind their respective parties. As a result, support for or opposition to impeachment rarely climbs much higher than 50 percent in any poll. (The impeachment inquiry itself is slightly more popular: By a margin of 5 to 10 percentage points, Americans tend to tell pollsters that starting the inquiry was a good idea.)

But as media analyst Eric Boehlert wrote for Daily Kos, “by treating as no big deal the fact that basically half the country supports removing the president of the United States from office, the media is greatly helping Republicans spread their preferred impeachment message: The inquiry isn’t resonating.”

Support for Clinton’s impeachment never got close to that high. Support for Nixon’s impeachment didn’t go that high until weeks before he left office.

Similarly, NPR recently concluded that “the overwhelming majority of Americans across parties say nothing they hear in the inquiry will change their minds on impeachment.” But that still left 30 percent who said it could – including 42 percent of independent men.

Divides Within Families

I have to admit that my attempt to get folks to confront their know-nothing relatives over Thanksgiving and report back on any success was a total bust.

Nevertheless, I was hearted to hear Columbia University psychologist Peter Coleman on CNN saying that views of impeachment might change over Thanksgiving.

“One of the things we find is that people actually –their attitudes are more affected by their relationships by their friends and family that they speak to who they trust and understand,” he said.

Lots of people watched the hearings, and they’re “having conversations with countless others,” he said. “And it’s through that channel that you start to see an impact. Which means that sometimes these effects take time to see — to see them show up in polls. So I do think that there could be changes taking place, we just don’t see them in the immediate polling.”



  1. Every poll shows that whites are divided between those who have a four year degree and those who don’t. Like every other media maven, your answer is to tell people that facts are dictated by college graduates and that they are not subject to democratic debate. Then you complain that non-college whites don’t agree with you.

    The reason for your confusion? You think neutral media is good, but it’s incompatible with democracy. From the anonymous propaganda of the Federalist Papers to the People’s Party candidacy of Wm Randolph Hearst, media must participate in democracy. Your vision is Pravda by private contractor.

    • Since when are “facts” subject to debate, democratic or otherwise? Stop peddling the notion that “facts” and Trumpian “alternative facts” are equally plausible- utter nonsense.

  2. Regardless of facts (or beliefs masquerading as facts) the matter is really about truth, which usually a theology conjured up from a mixture of facts, ‘facts,’ beliefs, and myth. Among these beliefs – a position held in the absence of, or in contravention of – demonstrable facts. It is a false premise that Republicans lie and Democrats don’t. The last two D-party presidents ended welfare as we know it, supercharged defense spending through small-business killing megamergers, took down Glass-Steagall, deported more central Americans than presently, sent millions of Main Street Americans through foreclosure while generously handing out taxpayer financed bonuses to Wall Street, sequestered defense spending (more concentration for Big Defense, killing off more small contractors), and continued the same lies and surges as the R-party. The Republicans are at least honest about their lies. Stop them if you can.

    signed, a 4x Obama voter (counting primaries)

  3. I don’t think “who benefits?” has been fully answered. DF implies it’s the Republicans, but I think it is worth recalling that the Republican Party today was taken over by movement conservatives and libertarians almost entirely financed by reactionary rich. This goes back to the reaction against Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, as detailed by scholars such as Phillips-Fein in her book *Invisible Hands*, Stedman in his book *Masters of the Universe*, and Mirowski in his book *Mont Pelerin*, and others. Kruse details how the reactionary rich corrupted American christianity in his book *One Nation Under God.* Nancy MacLean in her book *Democracy in Chains* has added another angle by documenting how the “public choice” economics of James Buchanan was developed at George Mason University as a reaction against civil rights and desegregation.

    The spectacular success of the reactionary rich in shaping public belief and perceptions about the economy and American economic history is clearly evidenced in the huge gaps in incomes and wealth that have been created during the political ascendancy of conservative and libertarian economic ideas. These ideas include the misleadingly named “neoliberalism” and its Washington Consensus, which infected the Democratic Party after it abandoned its alliance with labor and embraced instead the “information economy” as detailed by Thomas Frank in his book *Listen Liberal.*


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