You’ve heard it before—on TV, in the halls of Congress, and maybe in your own hometown: America is more divided now than at any point in our lifetime. But is this perception reality?
On today’s episode of The Daily Signal Podcast, we examine why America is so polarized—or if it’s actually just our perception. Research from More in Common, an organization focused on building a more united America, suggests there’s more to the story. Stephen Hawkins is the group’s global director of research. He shares the latest finding on the “perception gap” and “hidden tribes” of America.
Listen to the full episode or read a lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: We are joined on The Daily Signal Podcast by Stephen Hawkins, the global director of research at More in Common. It’s an organization that was established in 2017 to build communities and societies that are stronger, more united, and more resilient to the increasing threats of polarization and social division. Stephen, thanks so much for joining us today.
Stephen Hawkins: Thanks so much for having me on.
Bluey: Absolutely. The topic of unity is something that our nation is grappling with right now. This past week has been a tough one in the United States. It’s a topic that we’ve discussed on this podcast in the past with people like Arthur Brooks and Jeanne Safer and others. So tell us about your organization and the mission of More in Common.
Hawkins: We got our start from a tragic beginning, sadly. Some of our co-founders were very closely connected to a member of parliament who in 2016 was killed because of her support for embracing Syrian refugees into the U.K.
That created a big national moment where there was some alarm about what was happening in the U.K. for a sitting member of government to be killed by one of their constituents for their stance on a policy of accepting refugees.
That began a broader set of reflections about sources of division and polarization in the U.K. and France and Germany and the United States.
Our organization has spent the last few years talking to thousands and thousands of people in those countries trying to understand their perspective, how they connect to politics, how they connect to their identities, and, ultimately, trying to find ways to rebuild those societies so that people feel more at home and less afraid of what’s coming.
Virginia Allen: Stephen, yourself and two of your colleagues have recently published a report called “The Perception Gap.” Can you give us just a brief summary of that report and what the perception gap is?
Hawkins: “The Perception Gap” builds off of pretty robust academic literature into a subject that’s called false polarization. And false polarization is the idea that among people who are the most politically engaged, they tend to overestimate how extreme and how different and how ideological their political opponents are.
So we wanted to explore this in the context of 2019, 2018, and the political environment that we’re in now in the United States.
The way we did that was we asked Democrats, “What do you think Republicans think on a number of key issues from immigration to racism to Islam?” And then we asked Republicans, “What do you think Democrats think on a number of issues—immigration, attitudes towards police, attitudes towards being patriotic?”
And then all we did was, we looked at the difference between what Republicans told us they actually think about these issues and what Democrats estimated that they would think on those same issues and vice versa.
What we generated from that was something we call the perception gap, which is the difference between what people actually believe and what their political opponents estimate that they’ll believe.
And the key headline from our study is that the more politically engaged people, the most active voters, the biggest donors, the biggest activists on each side tend to overestimate how extreme and how different their political opponents views are. And the people who are closer to the middle who are less politically engaged tend to have a better read on what their political opponents think.
Bluey: It’s really fascinating, the research that you’ve done. I want to talk about another report that you did last year, which is actually how I first learned more about More in Common. It was called “Hidden Tribes: The Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.” You not only did this report prior to the election, but then you did an update after last year’s midterm election. What do you mean by hidden tribes? What are they and and what does the report conclude?
Hawkins: The reason we call them hidden is because we tend to think and discuss American politics along the lines of demographics, white people, rural voters, black voters, highly educated or in political categories of the parties, Democrats, Republicans.
What we did with our analysis in “Hidden Tribes” was we looked for patterns in the way that people’s psychology and orientation toward politics were kind of distributed across the country. It’s a statistical process called cluster analysis.
What we did was we looked for those patterns. Where are there very similar people whose orientation toward society on things like how they raise kids, things like how worried they are about whether the world’s becoming less safe, and looking at their values, things like how much they care about preserving authority figures in society, how much they care about sense of fairness.
We grouped people according to those attributes, their psychology, and also their degree of political engagement.
That gave us a very interesting distribution of seven groups from the far left to the far right. And using that methodology, we were able to better explain some of the deepest divisions in our country on questions related to race and immigration and health care and other issues.
It allowed us to see a little bit deeper into people’s psychology and belief system and show how that’s connected to people’s political beliefs.
We also discovered in that group something we call the exhausted majority. This is our interpretation of what about two-thirds of Americans belong to. It’s a group of Americans that feels deeply frustrated by the conflict in our political system, wants to see some level of compromise, and doesn’t feel particularly well-represented in the political debate.
Bluey: Well, looking at the different tribes, it was interesting to note that we hear, obviously, a lot about the progressive left or the conservative right, but the highest percentage was politically disengaged people.
So what can you tell us when it comes to some of those policy issues? Obviously, that is the core focus of our work here at The Daily Signal in terms of covering those big debates. What can you tell us from your research that you’ve discovered about these various seven tribes and how they respond to an issue like immigration?
Hawkins: The politically disengaged, I’ll just start with that and then answer the broader question about immigration.
Politically disengaged are the most heterogeneous group. This is a group that doesn’t have a lot in common with each other except for the fact that they aren’t particularly oriented toward watching the news or reading the news closely about politics.
They’re not particularly likely to vote, their answers to political questions don’t line up in a consistent way that shows an underlying ideology or worldview that connects them to politics.
They’re more likely to have a position that aligns with Democrats on immigration, but then a position that aligns more with conservatives on abortion, for instance.
So there’s a lot going on in that group. They do tend to be lower educated, lower income. They often express finding politics kind of overwhelming.
This is a group that in our research we found was most inclined toward believing conspiratorial theories about society, for instance. So they’re a complex group, as we say, they’re 26% of the population.
And if they were to all vote, I think we would see different outcomes in our country. But … at the moment, they feel the political system doesn’t have much to offer them and they tend to think along the lines of things like, “All politicians are the same and they’re all corrupt. The system is rigged for the rich,” and so on. That means it leads them to focus more on just making it through their daily lives.
This is a group that has a lot of young parents in it and who are just trying to make ends meet. Politics is kind of a luxury activity for them that they don’t get too indulgent.
Then, on the question of how these groups differ on issues like immigration, we find that there is a complex story here. There are some elements of immigration where there’s a lot of alignment. For instance, most Americans support a policy that would bring a process into being for people who are living here with undocumented status toward becoming a citizen.
That’s especially true of people who were brought here as children. So what’s called the the “Dreamers” and the DACA program.
Then there is much more division and a lack of agreement on what immigration is actually doing for our country today.
Is immigration leading to more prosperity and better economic outcomes or is it really a net drain where it’s costing the country a lot in terms of public resources?
We found in other research we’ve done that really if you express that your policy objective for immigration is to preserve our border, at the same time that we show humanity and respect toward those who are fleeing from violence and poverty and coming to the United States in a way that is respectful of our laws in our culture, you can get most Americans on board with that kind of policy.
The trick really with immigration is to commit to both things at the same time. Keep our country safe, keep our country orderly, and then show humane, dignity, and respect toward people who are coming from outside.
Allen: Going back to your study on “The Perception Gap,” what role did you all find that the media and the way that we consume news plays in this gap?
Hawkins: This is some of our most interesting sets of findings. We found that, on average, media consumption tends to distort people’s perceptions of their political opponents.
In some ways it’s counterintuitive because the people who are consuming the most news ought to be the most informed and in many respects they are the most informed about what’s happening in the country. But when it comes to assessing what their political opponents believe, they tend to have really distorted and kind of caricatured understandings of their political opponents.
We found that this was true kind of independently of what media source people were reading, but the degree to which it was true varied, particularly some of the more hard right-leaning news sources, such as Breitbart, were correlated with the strongest overstatement of how extreme … Democrats’ policy views are.
We also found that people who identified, for instance, as Democrats, but occasionally watch Fox News had a better, more accurate read on Republicans.
Similarly, Republicans, who occasionally read left-leaning sources or watch left-leaning sources, had a better understanding of what their political opponents thought.
So the takeaway from us is it’s really helpful to have what we refer to as a balanced media diet. Just like with your food, you might have some things that are easy and fun for you to consume and some things which you kind of need to hold your nose a little bit. But you know that they’re good for you because on aggregate they give you the kind of healthiest picture of what the country really thinks. So that’s what we’re concluding from that section of our report.
Bluey: As the executive editor of The Daily Signal, I wholeheartedly agree with you on that. I think that’s one of the reasons that we were inspired to create a news organization here at The Heritage Foundation. We felt that we were hopefully adding a healthy dose to the diets of Americans in terms of the news that we produce and the focus particularly on policy issues and the debates that are playing out here in Washington and across the country.
So I encourage our listeners always to have that healthy diet of news consumption. As much as we love you listening and reading to The Daily Signal, make sure you’re checking out other sources as well.
Stephen, I want to ask you also about the perception gap and, specifically, the finding on higher education, which really surprised me. The people who have a higher education and a college degree actually are contributing to this gap. What did you discover?
Hawkins: That’s right. This was particularly interesting on the left side of the spectrum, meaning among Democrats.
What we found is that more highly educated Democrats were the ones who were more likely to have the more distorted picture of your average Republican. And that correlated to education but likely not the curriculum that they’re consuming as a more highly educated person, but rather that higher-educated Democrats tend to filter out the conservatives and Republican friends in their social networks as they become more educated.
We found that as Democrats went from high school to college to Masters degrees and further degrees, with each increasing step up that ladder of educational attainment, they reported lower and lower levels of Republicans and conservatives in their friend circles.
So what’s happening here is an interesting social effect where Democrats tend to self-select out of politically diverse communities and into a more politically homogenous environment where their day-to-day contact with people who differ from them politically starts to go really southward and then they end up having less of a direct connection to the reality of everyday Republicans.
Allen: You all concluded in the report that we’re actually less divided in America than we think we are. So do you have any advice or thoughts on how we go about shifting our focus from those differences to the areas that we do agree on?
Hawkins: At the level of just your listeners and us in this conversation, I think that the two key takeaways are: Do keep that balanced media diet that we already talked about. Do try and engage with people who you normally don’t talk to because they don’t agree with you about politics.
Keep those conversations going. It’ll be a healthy way to stay in touch with what more regular people think, who aren’t just part of these ideological fringes.
But, unfortunately, the main takeaway from our study is that the sources of this sense of a deep division in our country are actually institutional.
The incentive structures in our political system from the way that the parties select their nominees in the primary process through to the way that they gain support with campaign donations and all the way through to the way that our voting system works. Where voting is not obligatory.
All of these serve to amplify conflict and sense of polarization, as do a lot of the incentive structures in our new media landscape—where tailoring your content to confirm the perspective of your audience is proving to be a very lucrative approach as opposed to creating a balanced, neutral, and objective picture of what’s happening in our country.
So what I really hope will happen from at least this report and from other similar efforts is that as a country we’ll start having this conversation about: How do we reduce the level of polarization in our country? How do we return to a place where we can focus on things that we have in common and build constructively from there rather than focusing on the sources of division and exploiting them for revenue as a media organization or for votes as a political party?
Bluey: Stephen, thanks for sharing that advice.
And finally, I want to ask you, what’s coming up next for More in Common? Do you have future studies in the works or other projects that that you’re working on now?
Hawkins: Yeah. We’re going to continue to conduct research and we’re looking to build partnerships.
More in Common is still a small organization, only a few dozen people between four countries. And we’re looking to build partnerships with organizations that have reach in the numbers of millions and help them to better communicate with a cross-cutting section of the public to help to address some of these issues of polarization we’re seeing.
In France, we partnered with the Catholic Church. It was really struggling to talk about some sensitive issues around immigration and Islam and we’re looking to build partnerships like that in the United States as well.
Bluey: That’s wonderful. And if our listeners would like to know more about More in Common, you can go to MoreInCommon.com and find links to your previous research and more information about the organization. Stephen, thanks so much for being with The Daily Signal.
Hawkins: Thank you both so much.