There is ample reason to believe the U.S. stands as a house divided. Its political system has fractured into deep rifts of polarization. Its economic winners have for decades pulled away from the less fortunate.
Listen to talk radio or travel to certain parts of the Internet, and “you would think we were on the verge of a civil war,” acknowledges Will Johnson, one of the top pollsters in the United States.
But, he says, the noisy rancour of the country’s public discourse masks a more optimistic social cohesion.
In the urban apartments and rural farmhouses of the country, “people are, ironically, closer together than they have been in the past,” he said. Even with Gen Z, born into a cultural landscape atomized by social media, “they’re much closer together to their neighbours than you would expect to see historically.”
This is, he readily acknowledges, a contrarian view.
But Mr. Johnson, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, marshals considerable data as backing.
He is co-chief executive of the Harris Poll, whose founder, Lou Harris, supported John F. Kennedy’s successful 1960 election bid and built a company that has maintained some poll series since 1963. Those rank among the longest-running data sets on U.S. public opinion. Today, the company eschews the horse-race polling and narrow issue surveys that dominate political opinion sampling in favour of broader survey work to understand attitudes and motivations, often in support of companies and their brands.
What Mr. Johnson has found points to an American public whose views are coalescing rather than diverging.
More than 80 per cent support some form of gun control. About 76 per cent see the good in those they disagree with. Seventy-one per cent have friends that don’t share their views. Nearly six in 10 think some of the cultural wars are either overblown or missing the mark. The same percentage think most Americans get along with one another.
Taken together, it suggests large majorities of Americans remain largely unswayed by the ferocity of public debate on the issues that dominate the country’s political sphere.
“What I see when I look at the data is a much more nuanced, complex picture of Americans – and, I think, a more optimistic view as far as how we all feel about one another,” Mr. Johnson said.
Anyone listening to U.S. civil discourse might struggle to understand Mr. Johnson’s findings. If Americans can find common cause with each other, what explains the rise of Donald Trump, or the bitter factionalism that led to this month’s unprecedented ouster of Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives? If Americans agree more than they disagree, how can the country’s media landscape – with its angry talk radio and opinion-driven cable networks – offer such little space for middle ground?
“The way our politics are set up – our primary system, gerrymandering, things of that nature – they encourage skewing those minor differences, or making them look like they’re binary choices. Because it keeps entrenched power where it is.”
Mr. Johnson sees the rise of Mr. Trump not as evidence for a country divided, but as affirmation of its common views.
“There’s a feeling on both sides that the entrenched institutions, whether it be political or media, are not accurately representing how they feel and what they do.”
In that sense, support for an anti-establishment figure such as Mr. Trump is less about who he is than what he represents.
“It’s not about him. It’s much more about this is an opportunity to protest again feeling that things aren’t working for you,” Mr. Johnson said.
He believes the two-party system in the U.S. can engender misunderstanding. When Republicans prevail in a given electoral cycle, it’s easy to read that as a rightward shift in the electorate. Instead, a political sea change can reflect only small shifts in a broader public sentiment that remains more constant.
Mr. Johnson finds greater meaning in other measures, such as consumer preferences. Two of the most respected companies in the U.S. are outdoor wear supplier Patagonia and fast food chain Chick-fil-A. Each caters to a very different audience: Patagonia has pledged its profits to fight climate change while Chick-fil-A describes its corporate purpose as “to glorify God” and closes stores on Sundays.
“Yet they always do extremely well in their reputations, even with people who have big disagreements with some of the things they’re doing,” Mr. Johnson said. “People respect the authenticity and consistency of their positions. They feel like they’re real. They feel like they’re not being conned.”
The broad regard for those two companies, he said, suggests a change happening in a public that is growing exhausted with the angry divisiveness that has been used to drive clicks and votes.
If there are divides in the U.S., he says, they are more prominent along socio-economic than political lines.
But Americans tend to share outrage over similar issues. Presented with data that whites in Chicago, for example, feel considerably more satisfied with their health and well-being than minority groups, “immediately everyone says, ‘that’s a problem, we need to solve that,’” regardless of the way they vote.”
“Most people want their neighbour to feel secure,” he said.
Other polling shows Americans retain a sunnier outlook than might be expected for a country plagued by inequities, violence and an often ineffectual political system. While 83 per cent of Americans are unsettled by the normalization of trauma from gun violence and terrorist attacks, nearly seven in 10 are hopeful that today’s chaos will motivate change. And 85 per cent believe adults need more time to be playful, a number that suggests a longing for contentment that cuts across virtually all social and political lines.
Taken together, Mr. Johnson says, what he sees is a country that is ill-served by cautious politics or narrow ideologies. Instead, he says, the U.S. public has acquired a powerful hunger for genuine attempts to solve problems, even if those involve confronting messy realities.
“At this moment in time, the way that I see the electorate is that you have so much more permission to give people hard truths or nuanced answers. If you’re able to do that, authenticity will come through with that message – and there is a craving for that.”