In recent weeks, Americans have witnessed President Trump and Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) continue to escalate their public battle over treatment of Gold Star widow Myesia Johnson. Others, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and the widow of slain Army Sgt. La David Johnson have been forced to take sides about whether a president or a member of Congress is telling the truth about a condolence call, or which person is more out-of-bounds.
Although there is much that is unprecedented about this situation, like a president criticizing his predecessors for calling fewer Gold Star families than him, the most overlooked aspect of this situation is more troubling for the future of American democracy. Lost in the endless hours of commentary about Trump and Wilson is the reality that hyper-partisanship has moved from the political to the very personal. This breeds little willingness on the part of politicians and citizens to talk with one another to resolve real or perceived differences.
In the most recent Meredith College Poll, respondents were asked whether political polarization was worse today than six months ago. Almost 70 percent of North Carolinians felt that the country was more divided than it was just after President Trump was inaugurated, with over 80 percent of Democrats and minority groups feeling this way and almost 60 percent of Republicans concurring.
Several reasons were given about why political polarization has increased. A large majority of Democrats – over 80 percent – identified Donald Trump as the cause of increased polarization, while Republicans were more likely to identify the media as the major culprit. Independent voters were equally split between Donald Trump and the media as major sources of polarization.
While the perceptions of increased political polarization and the differences of opinion about the major causes of this extremism are not surprising, we also asked our respondents to evaluate the effects of this increased partisanship on their lives and relationships. Only about 20 percent of respondents indicated that talking to someone with different opinions of Donald Trump was “interesting and informative,” while just over 40 percent found such conversations stressful and frustrating. Moreover, roughly one-third of North Carolinians stated that they refused to talk to people with different beliefs about Donald Trump than their own.
Within the sample, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to find conversations about politics with people of different attitudes about Trump as interesting and informative, but even then, more than 70 percent of this group found political conversations as negative or they avoided them altogether.
In previous Meredith Polls related to partisanship, we found that the language people use to refer to those different than themselves was extremely negative. Republicans were more likely to refer to Democrats as “un-American” and “ignorant,” while the most often used phrases by Democrats to describe Republicans were “stupid” and “evil.”
Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan were ideological opposites in the 1980s. O’Neill was often angered by Reagan’s speeches and statements on issues such as taxes or Social Security reform. Many stories have been popularized in recent years about O’Neill going to the White House after being angered by Reagan and sitting down over a drink and talking about their respective difficulties, as opposed to reflexively going to the media to attack the other leader’s motives.
Democracy works better when our leaders behave more like O’Neill and Reagan rather than Wilson and Trump. More conversation without the intermediaries of Twitter and journalists would be a good example for citizens whose polarized attitudes are beginning to reflect those of its leaders.
David McLennan is a professor of political science and Whitney Ross Manzo is an assistant professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., where they direct the Meredith College Poll.