There are a wealth of sources telling Americans they are more polarized than ever. Polling consistently shows that Americans view our country as divided. Politicians stoke the fire among their political base to win support and elections. A new global study from the Edelman Trust Barometer agrees, categorizing the United States as one of six countries of the 27 examined experiencing “severe” polarization.
The Edelman report identifies key factors for high levels of polarization in a country: distrust of government, distrust in media, societal fears, economic pessimism, systemic unfairness and lack of shared identity. This description seems to fit the state of the union today.
The United States is in an era of all-time low trust in government. Trust in the media also dipped to record lows as many major networks and outlets spent decades experimenting with the classic American model of partisan journalism. With trust in these critical institutions bottoming out, people are more susceptible to buying into calamity claims, such as nuclear war, food shortages, energy crises, economic collapse and life-ending climate change. Looking at the factors that predict polarization in the Edelman model, the United States has a substantial number of strikes against it — putting us on par with Argentina, Colombia and South Africa.
The remaining factors that predict polarization — systemic unfairness and lack of shared identity — may be present in our nation today. Still, the United States has a unique system of government that can address these concerns in ways other polarized nations can’t. America’s arrangement of shared power between the states and a central federal government was designed to keep power as close to the people it governed as possible to facilitate fair and transparent government and maintain local cultures and value systems.
Local self-governance has immense potential to prevent unfair systems that favor government officials, the wealthy and the well connected. Research shows that more local, less fragmented government is less associated with corruption — backing up older research that argues more decentralized government restrains corrupt bureaucratic behavior and promotes accountability.
Our lack of shared identity, too, has come from the precedence where the federal government and systems have taken over state and local ones. America is a unique coalition of regional cultures, each with its own customs, industries, values and traditions that all prize in their way of life. Instead of focusing on the broader values Americans have in common, we have been pushed into defining ourselves by the policy fights that can never be reasonably settled among such a diverse group of cultures.
If America has become a tangle of disjointed, systemic unfairness, it is because the power of the people has been delegated to or seized by bureaucrats and distant federal agencies. Some believe the lack of trust in the government could be solved if government provided more to the people and became more involved in every challenge. But over the last 30 years, Americans have consistently believed that the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.
There are deep political divisions among Americans today, but that does not mean we are divided as a people. Our political differences are deeply embedded in our national history. We do not need to eliminate them to thrive.
We cannot cure these differences or solve any other problems by having one faction win just enough votes to jam through national policy until the pendulum swings ever so slightly over the halfway point again. Instead, we must accept our differences as part of our national identity and allow communities to govern themselves as they see fit, peacefully next to communities that feel differently under a broader set of shared American values.
• Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and senior messaging strategist at State Policy Network.