The 2016 election may be focused on the rise of Donald Trump, but the Trump candidacy is possible only because America is a nation deeply divided culturally and politically. On issues, values and even the meaning of the American Dream, Democrats and Republicans see different realities. Who wins will depend on which vision of America captures the majority.
Donald Trump’s campaign to become President of the United States has turned into a Rorschach test for American culture. To some Americans he is a dangerous demagogue; to others he’s a strong leader unafraid to voice what he believes. To some he is a self-aggrandising egotist; to others he’s a thumb in the eye of the political establishment. To many he’s simply a guilty pleasure they find themselves enjoying even if they suspect it’s not so good for them.
But whatever one thinks of Trump, it would be a mistake to undervalue his role in America’s unfolding drama, the 2016 race to the White House. Dismissed initially as a sideshow and carnival barker, his standing in the polls has defied pundits and political gravity alike. Now the cognoscenti are starting to concede that he could indeed capture the Republican nomination – and they are wrestling with the impact it could have on the party and the nation as well.
Trump’s appeal is part personality, part provocation, part bombast, and part the product of a society buffeted by economic worries at home and terrorism coming from abroad. As a celebrity he has shown a knack for drawing attention and siphoning political oxygen from his opponents, and whether lashing out at immigrants, Muslims, journalists or other candidates, he has been able to dominate the media narrative and news coverage of the 2016 election.
But mistaken as it would be to trivialise Trump’s candidacy, it also would be mistaken to deem him the main storyline of this election. Donald Trump is not the cause of a disunited United States – but rather a conspicuous symptom. It is a nation torn by diverging worldviews and deepening conflicts over the very essence and meaning of America. His candidacy exists only because America’s political culture has become, to use Lincoln’s words, “a house divided against itself.”
In America today, Republicans and Democrats disagree on almost every salient issue – guns, LGBT rights, abortion, immigration, taxes, policing, race relations, global warming, America’s role in the world, and whether social disruption and economic inequality are best addressed by government or the marketplace.
But these issues are merely political cues to a deeper cultural divide rending American society. Republicans and Democrats consume different media, creating their own echo chambers of analysis and news. To Republicans the most trustworthy news outlet is FOX; to Democrats it’s the least. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said in 2013 that he doesn’t read the New York Times or Washington Post, which he considers “shrilly, shrilly liberal,” and instead gets most of his news “driving back and forth to work, on the radio. Talk guys, usually.”1
A 2014 Pew survey on political polarisation found that about half of Republicans and more than a third of Democrats say that most of their close friends share their political views, numbers that increase the more conservative and liberal people get. Pew also found that where Americans prefer to live increasingly depends on the political beliefs of their neighbors.2
Lifestyle, too, has become a function of partisanship. In 2012 Barack Obama won 77% of all counties with Whole Foods stores – supermarkets that focus on organic and natural foods – but lost 71% of all counties with Cracker Barrel restaurants, which cater to down home country cooking.3 Said one conservative writer, “that explains why I always feel so uneasy when occasionally shopping at Whole Foods. As a self described Republican churchgoer, I look around at the other shoppers and know instinctively these are not my people.”4
The political divide gets even more personal. According to 2010 survey analysed by Stanford University political scientist Shanto Iyengar, 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats would be unhappy if their child married someone from the other party – compared to 5% and 4%, respectively, 50 years earlier. Nowadays 90% of marriage partners share the same political affiliation, compared with 65% in the 1960s. When a 2008 survey asked about personal traits, about half of all Americans found members of the other party less intelligent, more closed-minded, and more selfish than members of their own.5
A polarisation that demonises the other side, creates interpersonal and informational silos, and politicises the simplest of lifestyle choices cannot but magnify even the smallest of differences and turn every political disagreement into a test of partisan loyalty. A 2015 Reuters/Ipsos poll found 27% of Republicans and 22% of Democrats saying the other party is an “imminent threat” to the country.6
The Obama presidency has proven so divisive that we now have dueling storylines about the last eight years. To Democrats, Obama’s election and presidency symbolise progress toward a more inclusive, diverse, and liberal culture that began germinating in the 1960s with civil rights, women’s rights, gay liberation and both the environmental and peace movements. To Republicans, Obama is a pied piper who has ushered in an era of government overreach, national weakness, and cultural decline.
Indeed when the 2015 Reuters/Ipsos poll asked Republicans which world leaders constituted an “imminent threat” to America, more said President Obama than Russian President Vladimir Putin (34 to 25%). Sometimes this Republican narrative of decline even eclipses actual facts: despite an unemployment rate far lower than what it was the day President Obama took office, 53% of Republicans believe it is worse.7
Dive down even more and the American Dream itself no longer has the mythical power to unite the country. To be sure, most Americans still subscribe to the notion that those who work hard can succeed or at least obtain a degree of comfort and economic security in the United States. They also agree that achieving the American Dream seems more difficult these days, though Republicans blame President Obama and big government whereas Democrats target Wall Street and powerful special interests.
But it’s the flip side of the American Dream – when people don’t succeed – that drives Democrats and Republicans apart. To Republicans in particular, someone who fails to succeed simply didn’t work hard enough – or was flat out lazy. It’s the Republican mantra that in America anything is possible, so people determine their own fate – and any difficulty they face is all on their shoulders.
This is an American Dream version that has political and policy consequences. For if success or failure is all a matter of individual character, then any government involvement to provide help and soften the edges will simply enable someone’s moral failings and excuse their personal shortcomings. To Republicans, the market – not government – should be the moral organising principle for society.
So conservatives and many middle class whites – the Republican Party base – object to giving their hard-earned money to a government that will subsidise those who they believe haven’t worked for it. “If my kids are going to be successful,” an Ohio woman told Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam for his 2015 book on the American Dream, “I don’t think they should have to pay other people who are sitting around doing nothing for their success.”8
These attitudes extend to the highest levels of the Republican Party. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan warned in 2012 that America risks becoming a society of “takers versus makers … where we will have turned our safety net into a hammock that lulls able bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency which drains them of their will and incentive to make the most of their lives.”9 Such views may explain the vehemence with which Republicans oppose President Obama’s health care reform, as many Republicans view it as simply another government transfer from those who have earned it to those who haven’t.
To Democrats, the Republican worldview punishes the poor, disregards the historical and socioeconomic causes of poverty, and exploits resentments among the white working class who then see themselves as victims. Democrats don’t disregard personal responsibility but say that government can provide a ladder to help people climb and a safety net to ensure that they and their families don’t fall too far. To them, government is a moral check on the free market.
These diametrically opposed approaches to the American Dream can be seen in a 2014 YouGov survey in which Republicans associated success with hard work and Democrats viewed poverty as a result of fewer opportunities. A plurality of Republicans, almost half, said people are poor because of their individual failings or poor work ethic, while most Democrats cited a lack of opportunities and available jobs. A healthy majority of Republicans said the unemployed could find jobs if they wanted to, whereas two-thirds of Democrats said most are trying hard to find jobs but can’t. Conversely, half of Republicans said that people are wealthy because they worked harder, whereas 62% of Democrats said they had more opportunities.10
Similarly, when Americans were asked in 2012 about government programs aimed at helping the poor, 55% of Republicans said that these programs create a culture of dependency whereas 83% of Democrats said that they serve as a crucial safety net; when asked if welfare recipients are taking advantage of the system or are in genuine need of help, 63% of Republicans said the former while 64% of Democrats chose the latter.11
These attitudes may also explain some of the racial resentments roiling society, as many whites believe that government has bent over backward to aid and privilege African Americans, thus creating an unfair advantage for minorities. In a 2015 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 64% of Republicans said that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities – 71% of Democrats disagreed.12
So it should be no surprise that when Americans describe their tableau of the country and what the real America means to them, two starkly different images emerge. The Republican America tends to be white, Christian, religious, living in small towns or outer suburbs, steeped in traditional values, flag-waving, distrustful of diversity and cosmopolitan culture, and like the Nevada vanity license plate with the words “Hard Work,” convinced they are doing more than their share. Two-thirds of Republicans say that American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s. To them, immigrants burden rather than strengthen America, and few express any desire to live in a diverse community.13
Or as 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin put it, “the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America … – hardworking, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.”
Democrats have a very different vision, one that embraces diversity and pluralism, welcomes immigrants, prefers the cosmopolitan to the small town, sees patriotism in social justice, and believes that America has changed for the better since the 1950s.
It’s an America President Obama described when he traveled to the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark march for voting rights: “Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American. Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian Americans, gay Americans, Americans with disabilities – they all came through those doors. Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past.”
If Americans can’t agree on what defines them and who they are, if they see the opposing party as a danger and threat, if their competing worldviews envision two polar opposite Americas, then it helps to explain the candidacy of Donald Trump and suggests that the 2016 election will be fought out not on the issues per se – but on which vision of America will be able to capture the majority.
About the Author
Leonard Steinhorn, professor of Communication and affiliate professor of History at American University, specialises in American politics, the presidency, race relations, and recent American history. The author of two books, one on race and the other on baby boomers, he lectures regularly, writes for newspapers and magazines, appears regularly on broadcast news programs, and serves as a political analyst for CBS News.
1. Jennifer Senior, “Antonin Scalia: In Conversation,” New York Magazine, October 26, 2013.
2. Pew Research Center, Political Polarization in the American Public, June 12, 2014.
3. David Wasserman, “Senate Control Could Come Down to Whole Foods vs. Cracker Barrel,” FiveThirtyEight.com, October 8, 2014.
4. Myra Adams, “The Divided State of America Can Not Stand,” PJMedia.com, August 18, 2011.
5. See Shanto Iyengar, Guarav Sood & Yphtach Lelkes, “Affect, Not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization,” Public Opinion Quarterly (2012) 76 (3): 40V5-431. See also Thomas B. Edsall, “How Did Politics Get So Personal?” The New York Times,
January 28, 2015.
6. Roberta Rampton, “Republicans see Obama as more imminent threat than Putin: Reuters/Ipsos Poll,” Reuters.com, March 30, 2015.
7. Republicans were asked the unemployment rate under Obama in a November 2015 Bloomberg Politics Poll.
8. Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 25.
9. Dave Umhoefer, “Has Ryan remained consistent in talking about what he calls society’s ‘takers’ and ‘makers’?” Politifact.com, February 13, 2013.
10. The YouGov poll was conducted April 15-16, 2014.
11. Public Religion Research Institute, The 2012 American Values Survey, October 2012.
12. Public Religion Research Institute, Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust: Findings from the 2015 American Values Survey, November 2015.
13. Views on whether America has changed for the better or worse since the 1950s can be seen in the Public Religion Research Institutes 2015 American Values Survey, cited above. For views on immigrants, see Pew Research Center, Broad Public Support for Legal Status for Undocumented Immigrants, June 2015. For views on living in a diverse community, see Pew Research Center, Political Polarization in the American Public, June 2014.