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OPINION

More than politics divides us, national identity unites us

We’re overwhelmingly grateful to be American — and overwhelmingly worried about the country’s future.

These people probably share more common ground than they realize.
These people probably share more common ground than they realize.VICTOR J. BLUE/NYT

In this age of raw partisanship and polarized social discourse, is there anything on which Americans see eye to eye?

As a matter of fact, there is. According to a new report from More in Common, a nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding and countering the forces driving Americans apart, 94 percent of adults believe that the United States is “very divided politically,” and 92 percent say that they are “worried for the future of America.” Those are depressing numbers but also, in a sense, hopeful ones: Whatever else may pit us against each other, we are united in concern about where the country is headed. That “strong consensus sweeps across gender, racial, regional, generational, partisan, and educational groups,” write researchers Stephen Hawkins and Taran Raghuram. By itself, such near-unanimous agreement doesn’t change anything. But it suggests that there is at least an inchoate national yearning to lessen our divisions.

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More in Common’s new study is titled “American Fabric: Identity and Belonging.” It builds on data gathered in three national surveys of more than 8,000 Americans, and extends the findings of its much-discussed 2018 report, “Hidden Tribes.” That earlier study sorted contemporary Americans into seven groups, each representing a distinct political/ideological orientation. From left to right, those groups were Progressive Activists (who account for 8 percent of the population), Traditional Liberals (11 percent), Passive Liberals (15 percent), Politically Disengaged (26 percent), Moderates (15 percent), Traditional Conservatives (19 percent), and Devoted Conservatives (6 percent).

As the 2018 survey documented, the small but strident “tribes” at the far ends of the bell curve — the left-wing Progressive Activists and the right-wing Traditional and Devoted Conservatives — tend to be the most hardline. Those are also the groups that dominate party politics and make so much noise on social media. They are the least flexible ideologically and the most likely to say that “people I agree with politically need to stick to their beliefs and fight.” The other groups — which More in Common dubs the “Exhausted Majority” — are more likely to believe that “people I agree with politically need to be willing to listen to others and compromise.”

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In its new report, More in Common explores how people in the United States feel about their country and their place in it. It sorts its findings both by “tribe” and by traditional demographic markers — race, gender, age, etc. What emerges is a nation with plenty of disagreement when it comes to issues of race, history, and America’s role in the world, yet remarkably united in love of country.

Unsurprisingly for a study conducted in 2020, questions about racial justice and fairness revealed wide disparities in outlook. When asked whether, compared with other countries’ inhabitants, “Americans have historically treated each other poorly,” progressives and liberals overwhelmingly said yes, as did Blacks, Democrats, and Generation Z respondents. By contrast, conservatives, Republicans, and the Silent Generation (those born before 1945) were the most likely to say no. Whites were split 50-50.

In a different approach to the same issue, participants were asked whether they agreed that “people like me are not seen as being ‘American enough.’” While 73 percent of white Americans did not feel that way, roughly that percentage of Black and Asian Americans did. Yet responses to another question — “How often do you feel that people like you are unwanted or disliked in America?” — were more evenly divided. Among the elderly, fewer than 1 in 4 said they often felt unwanted or disliked, but the ratio was much higher among most other groups. By narrow majorities, Progressive Activists, Devoted Conservatives, Millennials, Gen Zers, and Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans all reported feeling that way. Overall, 47 percent of Americans expressed that sense of rejection.

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Does that signify that America is a dysfunctional nation hopelessly mired in mutual resentment? Or does it reflect the reality that in any society as large, heterogeneous, and complicated as ours, there will always be tensions, even at the best of times? There is considerable friction here, but there is also considerable goodwill: Across the board, majorities of Americans say they have friends whose politics they disagree with.

To my mind, the most significant takeaway from “American Fabric” is not that large numbers of Americans are often critical of their country, or feel disrespected by fellow citizens. It is that, despite everything, Americans have a strong affection for their nation — an affection deeply rooted and broadly shared.

For example, when asked whether they agree with the statement “I am proud to be American,” a majority — usually a large majority — in virtually every category say yes. Traditional Liberals and Traditional Conservatives, Baby Boomers and Millennials, men and women, Black and white, low-income and high-income, Democrats and Republicans — whatever else they may differ on, they are united by pride in their country. The single exception was the leftmost “tribe,” Progressive Activists, of whom only 34 percent called themselves proud to be American.

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Equally striking is how thankful Americans feel. A majority of every group — no exceptions — agreed that “I am grateful to be American.” Fully 80 percent of respondents endorsed that sentiment, with only slight variations across lines of race, age, gender, and income.

America just came through the most divisive election year in living memory. The polarization of our political and media cultures is all too real, and won’t disappear soon. But there is more common ground beneath us than we tend to realize. Nearly all Americans are proud of their country and grateful to be part of it, and nearly all Americans worry about its future. Ideological hostility isn’t written into our national DNA. The more we can tune out the strident voices at the extremes, the more we’ll find that the identity binding us as Americans supersedes our partisan divisions.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.