Is there enough common ground to build a new kind of dialogue about America?
It doesn’t seem so. After all, Fox News and CNN/MSNBC appear to be broadcasting from different planets, with different audiences, different perspectives, different languages, and completely different sets of “facts.” President Trump is either the savior finally forcing America to confront the tough choices it needs to make, or a toddler recklessly smashing the nation to bits.
There is no bridging the divide between Republicans and Democrats, between urban and rural, between the coasts and the middle of the country.
Or is there? I set out to find out where Americans agree and disagree. Last week, I asked my panel of 500 voters to rate 30 statements about policy, about the future of the country, and about some of Trump’s recent decisions. To assess the areas of agreement and divisions, I segmented voters into four categories: liberals, moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans, and “Trump’s base.”
Where we agree
As you might expect, 85 percent of my voters agreed on a number of statements of shared concern:
I worry about the state of our education system.
The federal deficit is a huge problem.
The decision about whether to have an abortion is excruciating for a woman.
I worry about the crumbling infrastructure.
I believe in the American Dream.
It is not a good idea to deport a veteran, even if they originally came to the United States illegally.
With the right training, an unemployed coal miner could learn to work in tech.
But these more obvious shared viewpoints are not the only places where we agree. Despite varying perspectives on guns, 90 percent of us agree that “guns should not be in the hands of anyone who is on the terrorist watch list.” Nearly everyone, including most of those in Trump’s base, believes that “there must be a better way to create immigration law than to separate children from families.” And even those who wear Make America Great Again caps largely believe that “we should not boycott Harley-Davidson just because the company moves its manufacturing plant to Europe.”
Ninety percent of us agree that “it’s time for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to step aside.” Few of us want to see Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz run for president. And nearly 75 percent of us are skeptical about anything good coming out of the president’s tariffs.
So there’s widespread agreement not just on the obvious problems, but on where some of the proposed solutions are going awry. In all, 13 of the 30 statements on which I polled voters generated agreement.
Where we are divided
Not surprisingly, the more liberal you are, the less likely you are to agree that the world is safer because of the president’s meeting with Korean leader Kim Jong Un, or that the Supreme Court confirmation should happen before November.
Moderates were more likely to believe it’s time for a third political party, and that Mitt Romney should try another presidential run.
But there is a more substantial difference on what Trump’s behavior means in historical perspective.
For example, Trump supporters are less likely to believe that Russian interference in our elections is a big problem. The logic, as one voter expressed it: “The United States has done that in other countries for years.”
Does Trump lie more than any other president? This was the area where people disagreed the most. Liberals and moderates are certain that this is true. But voters in the Trump base offer the lies of past presidents, such as “You can keep your doctor” (Barack Obama), “We will investigate IRS corruption” (Obama), or “I did not have sex with that woman” (Bill Clinton). “They all lie,” wrote Anne from Michigan, who recalled how Franklin Delano Roosevelt hid his paralysis from Americans.
The other major area of division was voter response to this statement: “I have personally felt the benefits of tax reform.” Somehow, hardly any of the liberal voters had benefited, but virtually all of the Trump supporters had.
What’s going on here?
What matters most is your focus and your point of view. Trump voters see a president who lies like other presidents but delivers on their paychecks. Liberals see an egregious liar and focus less on the amount of withholding in their paychecks. We may live in the same America with the same president, but we don’t see it the same way.
Demonizing presidents is nothing new.
Demonizing voters is.
The truly pernicious problem is what we think of each other.
Jill, a Trump supporter from New Hampshire, laid out her thoughts on what liberals believe: that socialism is better than capitalism; that Trump supporters are racist and stupid; that the United States needs a new constitution; that the United States would be better if there were no borders and anyone could come here and even vote; that criminal illegal immigrants are good for our country; that even healthy people who don’t want to work should get paid by the government; and that abortion is a casual and easy decision for women. Do liberals really believe these things? I’ve polled them, and most don’t.
Susan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, laid out her thoughts on what the Trump base believes: that minorities are a threat to our way of life; that everyone should have as many assault weapons as they want; that we should close our borders; that the president’s tweets are a good thing; that Vladimir Putin is a leader to be admired; that the president should win a Nobel Peace Prize based on his work with North Korea; that a woman should never be president; and that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is a hero. I’ve polled the Trump base, and most don’t believe these things, either.
Cable TV, campaign ads, and the filter bubble of Facebook are showing us a false picture of America: one where the other side is full of evil people who believe and do awful things. We see the worst of the people we disagree with and project this negative image to all of them.
But if there’s one thing my research has shown, it’s that we agree on more than we think.
There is room to build here. There is room for candidates who can reach across the divide and connect with people who share concerns about the deficit, about immigration, about reasonable gun control, about investing in infrastructure, and about our country’s educational system.
The politics of hate are not what we are as a country . . . at least not yet. We need to find people we disagree with on some things, and listen to them as basic human beings and Americans. We need candidates who treat media as a way to get a message out rather than a punching bag, and who recognize they will need to work with those with whom they disagree. We need a government that once again works for most of us.
That’s not impossible, because what we agree on most is how distressing our divide is.
Clarification: The voters in this column were given pseudonyms to protect their identity.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified Nancy Pelosi.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space.
She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.