If social media hysteria is to be believed, the United States is on the brink of another civil war. According to the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service Battleground Civility Poll in October 2019, when thoughts of presidential elections were in the forefront of more minds, the average voter believed the country to be two-thirds of the way to civil war, citing political incivility and partisan differences.

This poll is part of Georgetown IPPS Battleground Poll, which Republican strategist Ed Goeas and Democratic strategist Celinda Lake created in June 1991. The bipartisan poll surveys 1,000 registered voters nationwide to measure political opinion, demographic trends, voter attitudes, and compromise/common ground possibilities. Unsurprisingly, Republicans are more likely to blame Democrat leaders, large news sources (dubbed “the media”, and more distrusted by Republicans than Democrats, based on a Gallup/Knight Foundation poll of 20,000 Americans), and channels like CNN and MSNBC; and Democrats are more likely to blame Republican leaders, Fox News, wealthy special interests, and President Trump. The factor that they blame in common is social media, though studies into the matter indicate that its influence is more indirect than may be believed.

Since the November 3 election and with the many lawsuits from President Trump and his staff on voter fraud, these worries of civil war have intensified. Writing in Noema Magazine of the independent think tank Berggruen Institute, sociologist/political scientist Dr. Jack A. Goldstone of Georgetown University and biologist Dr. Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut and the Evolution Institute described models that they developed and applied decades ago that predicted the rise of an America-first leader, political crisis, and social instability. “[G]iven the accumulated grievances, anger and distrust fanned for the last two decades,” Goldstone and Turchin surmise, “almost any election scenario this fall is likely to lead to popular protests on a scale we have not seen this century.” Their evaluation is based on the crisis indicators that preceded fallouts like the French Revolution and the American Civil War.

On the hypothesis of news-facilitated polarization, this YouTube skit is funny.

According to Dr. Gary W. Gallagher of the University of Virginia, who specializes in the U.S. Civil War and American military history to 1900, declarations about unprecedented political and cultural division climaxing in a second civil war are overblown. He posits that “[t]o compare anything that has transpired in the past few years to this cataclysmic upheaval”, which included an actual break-up of the country into Union and Confederacy and a decade of virulent disagreement on the reordering of society, “represents a spectacular lack of understanding about American history.” A critical factor (arguably the critical factor) impelling the secession of the Confederate states was the issue of slavery; the Confederacy outlined and regulated it in their 1861 Constitution, noting in Section 9(4) that “[n]o bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” Dr. Gallagher sees no political issue in the 21st century that is as charged for “potential divisiveness” as slavery in the mid-19th century.

Hyperbolically, John T. Bennett, Washington Bureau Chief at Independent, call the conflict between Republican-leaning rural America and Democratic-leaning urban America during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic an installment of the Second Civil War, or the Covid Civil War. The weapons, rather than muskets and bayonets, are “indifference, bitterness, grievance and old-fashioned hate.”1 The election maps from 2016, dividing the country into its districts and coloring them red and blue according to which party in each, illustrates some of this division. The one of the left colors an unaltered geographical region, while the one on the right, created by data scientist Karim Douïeb, colors the regions scaled to population size. The majority of the larger bubbles (the cities) are blue, while the majority of the smaller circles (the “country”) are red. (Additional maps may be viewed at Social Explorer and GeoAwesomeness.)

The opening question remains: How great is this perceived polarization?

First, what do we mean by polarization? I will use the definition given by Jilani & Smith (2019) at Greater Good Magazine of UC Berkeley: “Polarization is not the same as disagreement about how to solve public policy problems, which is healthy and natural in a democracy… Polarization occurs when we refuse to live next to a neighbor who doesn’t share our politics, or when we won’t send our children to a racially integrated school… [Groups] compete against each other in a zero-sum game where negotiation and compromise are perceived as betrayal.”

One measure of polarization is crossover in political values. A Pew Research survey of 10,000 Americans nationwide, administered by landline and cellphone from January 2014 through March 2014, suggests that the differences between Republicans and Democrats have widened. This 2014 Political Polarization and Typology Survey categorized respondents into three wings: Partisan Anchors, Less Partisan/Less Predictable, and Bystanders. The first group consists of Steadfast Conservatives, Business Conservatives, and Solid Liberals. Together they constitute 36% of the United States’s voting base and 43% of registered voters. The second, making 54% of the American public, contains Young Outsiders, Hard-Pressed Skeptics, Next Generation Left, and Faith and Family Left. Bystanders cover the remaining 10%.

Findings were based on responses to questions available in the appendix of the report, available here and starting on page 97. Grouping the respondents based on attitudes and values, the study concluded that “more Americans today hold consistently liberal or consistently conservative values across a wide range of issues, that Democrats and Republicans are further apart ideologically.” The study also observed a rise in distrust between the two main parties over twenty years, measured by level of favorability and belief that the other party threatens the well-being of the United States. (It is not unlikely that we are quite familiar with such sensational claims.)

Unsurprisingly, the Partisan Anchors are the most politically engaged and, thus, the most visible in media coverage of politics.

The Hidden Tribes of America project launched in October 2018 agrees with the ideological divisions that the Pew Research Center detected. Working with civil society groups and other organizations, pro-democracy More in Common analyzed the forces of polarization in the United States via a survey of more than 8,000 U.S. citizens, hour-long focus groups, and one-on-one interviews. The quantitative stage questioned participants on “demographics, partisanship, ideology, cognition, moral values, group identity, political attitudes, and political and media consumption behaviors”, as well as sections on the four main issues of immigration, race/social justice, gender/sexuality, and religion/extremism. Through hierarchical cluster analysis, seven “tribes” emerged, a framework they consider more accurate than the standard categories of Democratic/Republican or liberal/conservative.2

According to the survey,3 the American public, ideologically, can be divided into three Wing tribes and five “hidden tribes.”4 The latter they term the Exhausted Majority, representing 2/3 of the American public. These are the Traditional Liberals (11% of Americans), Passive Liberals (15%), Politically Disengaged (26%), and Moderates (15%). The other three are the Wings – the Progressive Activists (8%), the Traditional Conservatives (19%), and the Devoted Conservatives (6%) – whose discourse often drowns out the arguably greater sensibleness (sensibleness here considered to be willingness to dialogue and compromise with other tribes and recognition that their views on ABC or XYZ may be wrong) of the Exhausted Majority. One reason for the uneven media representation: Polarization has become a business model, and obstinacy in position makes for entertaining television and viral social media content.

Responding to the 2018-2019 government shutdown, which broke records by lasting 35 days, political scientist Morris Fiorina argues that “the polarization we so often hear about is limited mostly to political activists and elites who use media as a way to tout their own extreme views and mistake those of common citizens.” Matthew Levendusky, author of 2013 How Partisan Media Polarize America, detects a loss of incentive to compromise, which he views as an example of President Trump “figur[ing] out a way to drive the conversation” via media affinity for conflict.

Though polarization is not as strong as partisan media suggests, the misperceptions of it are fueling distrust and discouragement. Heltzel & Laurin (2020) see two possible futures: self-reinforcing upward trajectory as narrative feeds fears or decline as polarization reaches its apex. Where we are heading next, they contend, heavily depends on the strength of attacks against these misperceptions.

(c) 2019 Penn Today

Note: This post was drafted before the protest/riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Therefore, the implications, if there are any, of that event are not accounted for.

1. Through the election and the succeeding processes, this belief in a binary America, split between urban and rural, has been oftrepeated. Love and Loh at Brookings Institution condemn this framework of white and unproductive rural versus diverse and productive urban, as they see it inflicting harm by devaluing the contribution of and erasing people of color from the rural regions of the United States. A 2020 investigation by Johnson and Scala asserts that neither urban America nor rural America are ideological monoliths. Still, it is true that rural areas tend to vote more red and urban areas tend to vote more blue, and the perception of increasing political polarization compounds the hypothesis of a rural-urban divide.

2. Read more about the methodology of the Hidden Tribes survey starting at page 21 of the report.

3. If you’re curious, you can take the Hidden Tribes quiz here.

4. Read profiles for the seven tribes here.