How Did We Get So Divided?: America’s political differences can’t be solved quickly or easily

Last week saw a string of attempted bombings against prominent Democrats, and, while the investigators are largely staying silent on the motive, there’s a pretty safe guess as to why it happened. The perpetrator saw the other side of the political aisle not as fellow Americans, but as enemies. 

This attitude didn’t come out of the blue. According to the House Sergeant at Arms, there have been an “unprecedented number of threats” on members of Congress, and death-threats have more than doubled from 2016 to 2017. While most of these threats result in nothing, examining last year’s shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice shows the potential consequences.

So how did we get so divided? How did we get to the point that, as a 2014 Pew survey found, roughly a third of both parties see the other side as “a threat to the nation’s well-being”?

We aren’t here only because of heightened political rhetoric, as public figures have never been as civil as we would like. In fact, this is far from the worst things have been in the past. 

But if it isn’t rhetoric that’s causing our division, then what is? I argue that it’s the result of two things: where we live and what we see in the news.

Increasingly, liberals live in urban areas and conservatives in rural areas. This is a basic starting block for division, as it’s much harder to paint the other side as dangerous or evil if you personally know several members of that group. If you live next to someone of the opposite political party, a possibility that is becoming less and less likely, then it’s much easier to see the other side as Americans you disagree with, rather than as people represented only by their worst arguments on Facebook. 

But it’s not just that we live in different places. We increasingly eat at different restaurants, shop at different stores and watch different TV shows. In 2016, President Trump won 76 percent of counties with a Cracker Barrel while taking only 22 percent of counties with a Whole Foods. It turns out a person’s politics can predict a lot, including TV show preference. Republicans prefer shows like Blue Bloods, Democrats prefer shows like Modern Family and politics predict sports preferences so strongly that Business Insider ran with the title “Your Politics Are Hilariously Indicative Of Which Sports You Like.”

This type of gap has always been around, though it has grown much starker in recent years. In 1992, that Cracker Barrel gap was only 19 percent, rather than the enormous 54 percent gap that’s seen now. This isn’t just by accident, as one Stanford study determined Democrats are significantly more likely to move to a denser area than Republicans, a trend that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. 

This problem is only compounded by the media itself. The real problem isn’t fake news — which appears to have been a relatively small problem even in 2016 — the true issue lies in the media’s need for clicks, views or ratings. This encourages reporting to be increasingly sensational in a veritable arms-race for views, as even highly respected papers and channels resort to being slightly better than clickbait to draw in viewers. 

Oftentimes, the best way for media to do this is by emphasizing conflict, which has two important consequences. 

Firstly, it means there’s a far greater focus on partisan fights. Much of what Congress does is bipartisan, but the parties getting along doesn’t make for good TV. For example, which of these stories did you see more about last week, the major piece of legislation combatting opioids that was just signed into law with bipartisan support or President Trump calling Stormy Daniels a “horse face”?

But this type of coverage also presents a problem since it changes how campaigns are run. The media often gives little focus to the policy positions of the candidates, instead opting to cover the conflict of the horse-race, especially if that race goes negative. If the media will only cover a race when one candidate is attacking another, then the candidates will attack away. 

Between these two factors: living away from each other and media incentivized to cover conflict, it’s not surprising America is becoming more partisan. I wish I could end this article with a solution, but, unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. It really is going to take a fundamental shift in attitude from ordinary Americans to come back together as a country, because it doesn’t look like anything will change on these two issues in the foreseeable future.

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