The following is an excerpt from “Our Common Bonds: Using What Americans Share to Bridge the Partisan Divide” by Penn political scientist Matthew Levendusky (©2023 The University of Chicago Press).
On a blustery January day, just moments after being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America, Joe Biden delivered an address centered on “that most elusive of things in a democracy: unity.” This was perhaps a slightly odd choice, as the country seemed to be more divided than ever. Just two weeks before, supporters of former President Trump had stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to block the certification of Biden’s victory in the November 2020 election. January 6th marked only the second time in U.S. history that the Capitol had been breached, but the first time that American citizens—rather than foreign troops—had been the ones doing the ransacking. Even before that insurrection, few would have characterized the United States as unified: the country was seemingly torn asunder by divides over how to address the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic recession, as well as a centuries-overdue reckoning about the legacy of slavery and racism. Dissolution, not unity, seemed like a more appropriate topic for the moment.
Biden acknowledged that there were deep and significant challenges to be overcome. But he argued that to confront these challenges, we have to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” He acknowledged that this will be difficult, and that unity does not imply unanimity. But he argued that if we could come together as one, we could “heal a broken land” and “write an American story of hope, not fear, of unity, not division, of light, not darkness.”
Those stirring words, poetic as they were, likely seemed hopelessly naïve to most Americans. Biden himself acknowledged as much, saying that he knew his words sounded like “a foolish fantasy” to many. The public agreed with his assessment: in a poll by the Pew Research Center early in his term, of all of the issues polled, the public was the least confident in Biden’s ability to unify the country. This skepticism reflects the conventional wisdom about American politics: politicians in Washington, D.C., are hopelessly divided and cannot come together on almost any issue, and ordinary voters are little better. Indeed, not only do voters disagree with one another, they also fundamentally dislike and distrust one another. This animosity seemingly eviscerates any calls for unity among members of the public.
Public opinion data reinforce this bleak outlook. When asked about their feelings toward the other party, 79% of Democrats, and 83%of Republicans, described those feelings as negative, rather than neutral or positive. Nearly 8 in 10 say that they “fundamentally disagree about core American values” with those in the other party, and more than 70% think that those from the other party are “a clear and present danger to the American way of life.” Animosity and ill will between the parties have become the norm.
Scholars term this phenomenon of partisan distrust and dissensus as ‘affective polarization.’ Such partisan animosity damages our social and economic interactions with one another, and it also poisons our politics, diminishing democratic accountability and complicating the response to significant, ongoing crises, such as the coronavirus pandemic, economic inequality, and climate change. What, if anything, can be done about this partisan animosity? Is there any way to lessen it and ameliorate some of these corrosive consequences?
This book argues that we can reduce affective polarization, and it outlines a set of strategies to do so. The unity that President Biden spoke of so stirringly in his inaugural address will not be easy to achieve, and progress will be slow and halting, measured more in inches than in miles, as the months since Biden’s inauguration have illustrated. But it is possible to make progress toward that goal. To be clear, the strategies I present in this book reduce affective polarization, but they do not eliminate it—this is about amelioration, not cessation. Nevertheless, it is still possible to lower the nation’s political temperature, and make our social and political interactions more constructive. This book focuses on how to do that.
My approach starts from the fact that there are many different factors that drive partisan animosity. But one important factor is that Democrats and Republicans think they are more dissimilar than they actually are. This is not to say that they agree on everything, or even a lot: there are real and important differences between the parties. Yet most people still exaggerate those differences, and that heightens affective polarization. Reducing those misperceptions reduces affective polarization.
How do I do that? How can I reduce this misperception that Democrats and Republicans have nothing in common? I do so by highlighting our common bonds: the things that Americans share, sometimes surprisingly, across the partisan divide. In particular, the book focuses on three sets of common bonds between Democrats and Republicans. First, partisans share a set of common identities that bind them together. Normally, Democrats and Republicans see each other as rival partisans, but in fact they possess a number of common identities, most prominent among them their identity as Americans. If I prime this shared national identity, then this changes how they see members of the other party—not as partisan rivals, but as fellow Americans—and their animus toward them will fall. This same logic applies to other shared identities as well, and I explain how various sorts of identities can also help to bridge the partisan divide.
Second, they share a set of relationships that cross party lines. While it is true that Democrats are typically friends with other Democrats, and likewise for Republicans, it is equally true that almost all Americans—more than 80% of us—have at least some close relationships with those from the other side of the political aisle. Some of those we know and respect—our friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers, and so forth—come from the other party. When we remember these connections, our image of the other party changes. It is no longer just partisan stereotypes and media caricatures—it contains important people in our lives. As a result of this re-envisioning of the other party, animus toward it falls.
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans share some common ground with one another. This might seem odd given the popular narrative of polarization, but there are areas where both parties agree. This is not to say that the parties agree on most things, or even many things; clearly, they do not. Nevertheless, a narrower claim is true: on some issues, common ground remains. Further, and even more importantly, partisans exaggerate—often dramatically—the divergence between the parties. This is not just true of their issue positions; they also overestimate the degree of dissimilarity in terms of political interest, values, willingness to compromise, demographics, and many other factors. But if partisans realize that the other side is more similar to them in a variety of ways, animus will fall. I argue that can be accomplished with a civil cross-party dialogue, which functions as a powerful tool for highlighting commonalities between Democrats and Republicans.
What unites these three distinct strategies is that they all use the ties that bind us together to lessen animosity. The media—and many political elites—emphasize what divides us, as trafficking in fear and division is often a winning strategy. But this belies what we have in common. It is certainly the case that there are important divisions between the parties, and there are fundamental disagreements in American politics, especially at the elite level. But it is equally correct that many Americans remain more centrist than extremist, and partisans of all stripes share a set of identities and friendships. Political elites in Washington, D.C. may well have irreconcilable differences, but in the wider public the divides are gaps more than chasms.
Using a variety of data sources, I evaluate these claims, and find that all of these methods do, in fact, lessen affective polarization and improve attitudes toward the other party. Not only that—I show that a series of downstream consequences also flow from efforts to reduce affective polarization, including reducing ideological polarization and partisan motivated reasoning more generally.
All of this demonstrates that it is possible to reduce partisan animosity, and that doing so has important consequences. But it is also worth emphasizing that sometimes partisan animosity can be a good thing. In a diverse and pluralistic society like the United States, there will likely always be some partisan animosity, because there are real, and important, policy differences between the parties, and the choice between them matters. The danger is when, as at the present moment, that animosity reaches a point where it damages our social and political lives. The goal here is to help reduce this more harmful polarization, and help Americans find ways to engage more constructively with one another across partisan lines. This book lays out this argument, and explains how we can take small steps as individuals that can hopefully translate into something more meaningful for our politics.
Matthew Levendusky is professor of political science in the School of Arts & Sciences, as well as the Stephen and Mary Baran Chair in the Institutions of Democracy at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, at the University of Pennsylvania. He also holds a secondary (courtesy) appointment in the Annenberg School for Communication and serves as the Penny and Robert A. Fox Director of the Fels Institute of Government.
The text above is excerpted from “Our Common Bonds” by Matthew Levendusky, copyright ©2023 The University of Chicago Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher.