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Measuring America’s Divide: ‘It’s Gotten Worse’

At a time of sporadic-but-disturbing episodes of political violence in America, of intense disputes over state and federal power and even of loose talk about the possibility of another civil war, is there any way to calculate how divided we are? Or do we just need to trust our gut?

Two scholars at Vanderbilt University are trying for a more precise estimate. Their new measure, called the Vanderbilt Unity Index, uses a variety of indicators to quantify just how united or disunited the United States has been over the past four decades.

“No surprise — it’s gotten worse,” said John Geer, the dean of the university’s College of Arts and Science and co-director of its Vanderbilt Poll.

The index ranges from zero to 100, with zero meaning no unity whatsoever, and 100 meaning complete unity. Most of the time, the country is somewhere between 50 and 70 or so.

Geer pointed to a 40-year graph his team put together, which showed the trend line peaking in the high 60s or low 70s in 1981, the first year measured, followed by a slow but obvious drop to its nadir during the Trump administration.

The data shows plenty of peaks and valleys in between, however.

The lowest point in the index came after the “Unite the Right” rally of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Va., which led to a backlash against President Donald Trump after he infamously defended the participants as including “some very fine people.”

High points included moments when Americans banded together amid geopolitical crises, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the first Gulf War in Iraq.

When Joe Biden announced his White House bid in 2019, he said he was motivated in large part by Trump’s reaction to the Charlottesville rally, and made battling far-right extremism a defining theme of his campaign.

As president, he promised to bring the country together, and he has indeed passed some noteworthy bipartisan legislation, including a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a more modest gun-control bill after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

The index showed “a little bit of evidence” that Biden was able to foster unity, Geer said, as extreme polarization has fallen under his presidency. But Biden’s job approval numbers have kept the overall index low nonetheless.

To Geer, though, seeing how the numbers shifted within the index was encouraging. “Moving ideological polarization is much harder than moving approval numbers,” he said.

Mary Catherine Sullivan, a doctoral candidate in political science at Vanderbilt who was the other lead researcher on the project, pointed to 1994 as a turning point, with the slope of the decrease in the Unity Index becoming steeper.

That was the year when Republicans, riding a wave of disaffection with the first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, took Congress after decades of domination by Democrats. Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia became speaker of the House, and his hard-edge style fundamentally changed American politics, Sullivan said.

Fox News began airing roughly two years later, in 1996, bringing slick production values and a brash, conservative message to cable television.

Geer and Sullivan, hoping to compare “apples to apples” over time, used five consistently available indicators to make up the index: presidential approval ratings, surveys of ideological extremism, polls of public attitudes, roll call votes in Congress and the frequency of pollsters’ questions about protests and civil unrest.

Geer acknowledged that “unity,” despite the pair’s attempts to quantify it, was a bit of an elusive concept.

And politics, he emphasized, is fundamentally a healthy process by which Americans resolve their differences over, say, how big of a role the government should have in the health care system or what a fair tax rate ought to be.

“It’s easy to be nostalgic about the past,” he said, pointing to the immediate era after World War II.

“The postwar period was kind of an anomaly in American history,” he added, when the public had few choices in consuming news and when reporters often hesitated to dig too deeply into official sources of information or into the personal conduct of government officials.

That supposedly halcyon era in the 30 years or so between the war’s end and the civil rights movement also left millions of Americans out of the political process — whether through discriminatory voting laws or practices that disenfranchised Black voters in particular.

“When you think about it that way,” Geer said, “our democracy is not much more than 50 years old.”

But the explosion of choices in news consumption has had its drawbacks, which have been amply documented elsewhere: Voters can now choose to opt out of politics altogether because they no longer have to watch the nightly network news to find out what’s happening, or they can overdose on political news by watching Fox News or MSNBC all day and evening.

News and views about politics are now available in the palm of our hand, too. On platforms like Facebook and Twitter, our phones have become real-time chronicles of the thoughts and reactions of the most committed partisans and activists, with far fewer trusted, dependable “Walter Cronkite types” acting as a filter between the government and the public, Geer noted.

That can mislead Americans into thinking most of us are at each other’s throats over, say, Trump’s latest comments or Senator Joe Manchin’s most recent position on climate change — when in reality, Sullivan said, there’s a lot more agreement in the broad middle of the electorate.

“Perhaps social media makes us think that we’re more disunified than we really are,” she said.

Up until now, Democrats have struggled to pass the remainder of their policy agenda through Congress, though Joe Manchin’s move today may have shaken things up.

So environmental groups, mindful that many of their supporters are disappointed by what they’ve seen so far, have been recalibrating their messages after spending tens of millions to promote the $500 billion worth of climate provisions in the Build Back Better Act.

Tomorrow, the League of Conservation Voters, one of the most powerful and politically sophisticated environmental groups in the country, plans to roll out its new field program for the 2022 midterms — Manchin or no Manchin.

The organization also plans to unveil the first six members of the “Dirty Dozen,” a list of candidates the league deems to be “the worst anti-environmental candidates,” as Pete Maysmith, a senior vice president, put it in an interview.

All six are Republicans: Adam Laxalt, the G.O.P. nominee for Senate in Nevada; Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; Herschel Walker, the party’s nominee for Senate in Georgia; Mehmet Oz, its nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania; Representative Ted Budd, the nominee for Senate in North Carolina; and Representative Yvette Herrell of New Mexico.

The league plans to spend nearly $12.9 million defeating these six candidates, through a turnout-and-persuasion operation that will rely heavily on a combination of traditional door-knocking, phone calls, text messages and digital ads, aimed at voters it has identified as interested in climate issues.

Erin Phillips, the field director for the group’s allied super PAC, said that the coronavirus pandemic had “definitely” hampered her ability to show up at voters’ houses in 2020. So the group had to improvise, leaning more heavily on contacting people virtually and on a relatively new and fashionable technique called “relational organizing,” which involves enlisting friends and family members to nudge one another to vote.

This time around, Maysmith added, he expected voters’ anger over the obstruction of Biden’s climate agenda to drive turnout. That would represent a major shift in American politics — especially in a midterm election — but he pointed to recent polling suggesting that the climate had become a more prominent issue in voters’ minds in recent years.

The group’s message could be complicated, too, by Manchin’s apparent change of heart over whether to back new climate legislation.

But Manchin has switched positions often enough that few environmentalists are counting on him sticking with the new tack. And if he did, they would be happy to have his support.

The league’s head of government affairs, Tiernan Sittenfeld, put out a supportive but noncommittal statement on Wednesday that began with the word “Wow!” — but she added, “We are eager to see the details.”

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

— Blake

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

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