Government, immigration, race relations, and healthcare are the leading pain points for Americans, according to Gallup polling in 2019.
Interestingly, 27% named government as a top issue, and 18% for immigration; race relations and healthcare are just 6% each. Looking back to 2007, the government was just 7%, and immigration was 8%.
So why did the government, specifically, become a pressing issue?
Breaking down “government,” we see that partisanship continues to be the thing that drives people’s opinions. Democrats say that Republicans are the problem, and vice versa. Not that partisanship is necessarily bad, provided it is “positive.” With partisanship, it has been theorized that you increase voter participation and create more common good as a result of voters paying more attention to their individual needs and that of surrounding communities.
However, we currently live in a time that seems dominated by “negative” partisanship, which can lead to distrust in news media and research, and tribal mentalities that see voters thinking only about what is good for their side, even if those same voters know that certain policies or political positions on the other side might be better.
According to Pew Research, there are eight core issues that have contributed to partisanship today.
- Across ten political values, there is now a 36% gap between Republicans and Democrats, which compares to just 15% in 1994.
- Democrats are moving further left on issues while Republicans have held firm on their positions; issues facing black Americans may be a primary driver for pushing Democrats left.
- Republicans feel less strongly that the government should do more to help the needy compared to a majority of Democrats that feel the government should do more to help.
- Global issues and how much the U.S. should be involved also divides the political parties; both parties are not unified on this, with a divide showing there isn’t as much agreement even within the parties as compared to some other issues.
- Democrats are largely unified that the U.S. economic system unfairly benefits “powerful interests”; Republicans are split, with those earning $30,000 or less being more likely than those earning $75,000 or more to say that there is economic unfairness.
- Democrats are split on how much hard work contributes to success, with whites and those with college degrees being most skeptical; 77% of Republicans say most people can get ahead if they work hard.
- Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats have a favorable view of homosexuality, at 83% and 54%, respectively.
- A whopping 88% of Republicans favorably view Trump’s performance as president compared to 8% of Democrats; this is an astounding gap that has not been seen in the past 100 years.
Government is a top issue among Americans, but the statistics seem to suggest that it is not necessarily because we think the government isn’t doing a good job. Rather, we simply aren’t fans of the other side.
With that in mind, what can be done to improve the situation? Based on things that divide us, probably nothing. There are seemingly many deep, underlying differences that won’t easily be solved. Social issues, in particular, are a driving force. Views on marriage, the economy, immigration, race relations, and similar issues are often formed over a person’s entire life and not easily changed, if ever.
More than any of that, trust in our media continues to edge lower, which means that unifying people around any particular issue is increasingly difficult. If we can’t all get on the same page about what is a fact and what is misinformation then there really is no hope. Worse still is when politicians on both sides embrace misinformation because it appeals to the tribalism and makes it easier to get elected or remain in office.
While catastrophes like a global pandemic of coronavirus may help bring people together, it shouldn’t take war, economic collapse, or global pandemics to get people to come together and demand a bi-partisan agreement.
An article titled “What Are the Solutions to Political Polarization?” proposes several ideas. To address polarization, we may need to more frequently interact with those of differing political ideologies, speak more about our personal experiences directly to people, remove online “side talk” that amounts to gossip, thinking more like citizens and less as a group of people fighting for something, more diverse political party options, and voting for policies over parties.
The above article does attempt to outline ways to help make these changes, but it isn’t clear how long it would take to influence people and our political system, or even if people would be receptive. The writers do suggest more drastic measures may be needed to cut through partisanship, such as referendums like those used in Britain for Brexit. Although, it is suggested that delays and continual infighting over Brexit could be making things worse rather than better.
For our part, on the citizen-by-citizen level, each of us can do a little better by not accusing those on the other side of the political aisle of things that aren’t true because we are frustrated that our side isn’t winning. Likewise, speaking with those who hold a different perspective may help us to see why someone else would vote how they do.