Is America Hopelessly Polarized, or Just Allergic to Politics?

Frank Herholdt/The Image Bank, via Getty Images Plus

It seems that the only thing Americans can agree on is that we are living in an era of extreme political polarization. As we head into the 2020 presidential campaign, a striking 91 percent of people said in a recent PRRI survey that the country is divided over politics. This is higher than the percentage of people who reported that America is divided over issues of race and ethnicity (83 percent) or religion (77 percent).

Democrats and Republicans have long disagreed over policies, but in recent years the disagreement has turned personal. In that PRRI poll, more people were displeased by the thought that their child would marry someone of a different political party than of a different religion.

Worrying about decades of Thanksgiving dinners with relatives who support the other party might sound like clear evidence that America is hopelessly, alarmingly divided.

But there’s also a growing body of evidence that we’re overstating the divide. The real issue, it turns out, might not be with polarization. It might just be that most people really don’t like politics. Americans are open to people with all sorts of political and partisan opinions, our research shows — as long as they keep those opinions to themselves.

We conducted a series of experiments and surveys with more than 6,000 people during the 2016 and 2018 national elections. Like other recent polls and surveys, ours asked people whether they would be happy or unhappy if they had a child who married someone from the opposing party, Republican or Democratic.

But we added a new piece of information to this question, which said how often that new in-law would talk about politics. When people learned that their future in-law would rarely discuss politics, fewer than 30 percent said that they would be unhappy with an in-law from the opposing party. On the other hand, when we specified that the hypothetical in-law would never shut up about politics — he or she would interrupt social gatherings and holidays with the latest Trump dirt from MSNBC or Hannity tirade from Fox — more than 40 percent of people would be unhappy with the marriage.

This is especially true for those who do not strongly identify with a party, which includes nearly two-thirds of Americans. In this group, fewer than 20 percent said they would be unhappy with an in-law from the opposing party who rarely…

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