Is America's political divide just one big misunderstanding?
Maybe America isn't so politically polarized, after all. Maybe we simply don't understand each other all that well. Maybe — just maybe! — our values are more aligned than we think.
Those ideas seem counterintuitive: There's been no dearth of lamentations about the divided state of American politics in recent years. But they form the narrative at the core of a much-lauded new study that, as we'll see, is nonetheless flawed in a very important way.
The study comes from the More in Common Project, an international effort to fight "the increasing threats of polarization and social division." It suggests Americans are divided, in large part, because they don't really understand the views of people in other political parties. Democrats have a caricatured view of Republicans, Republicans have a distorted view of Democrats, and so on. In reality, the authors say, the values of people in both parties align more closely than our fiery political debates suggest.
"Overall, there are significant inaccuracies in Americans' perceptions of their opponents, with many perceiving them to be more extreme than they really are," the study's authors write, adding: "Americans are less divided than they have come to believe."
But maybe we don't. Maybe this study is flat-out wrong, and Americans understand each other just fine.
To comprehend why this might be the case, let's take a closer look at how the study says that Democrats misunderstand the views of Republicans:
"Democrats are least accurate in their estimation of Republicans' beliefs about immigration and race," the authors write. "Democrats imagine that only half (52 percent) of Republicans think that properly controlled immigration can be good for America, while the vast majority (85 percent) actually do. Similarly, Democrats estimate that about half of Republicans (51 percent) would admit that racism is still a problem in America, when, in fact, significantly more Republicans actually do (79 percent)."
But the study misses something very important. The friendly churchgoing Republican who lives next door may not hold such extreme views, but that doesn't matter so much, because you know who does hold those extreme views? President Trump.
The president ran for office with an announcement that referred to Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. He employs Stephen Miller as his adviser, and previously employed Stephen Bannon. His most intellectual supporters grouse about "the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners." He oversees a government that has separated immigrant children from their families, and argues against furnishing refugees with toothpaste and soap. He equivocates on the evil done by racists, and blasts African-American athletes who protest police abuses.
The Republican next door may not have a problem with immigration or race. The Republican in the White House most certainly does. And that matters because GOP senators defer to him. Fox News amplifies him. Talk radio lauds him. And while many Republicans may think the president is deeply flawed — 48 percent, according to the study — Trump remains hugely popular with members of his party. That means your friendly Republican neighbor is probably voting for Trump, which in turn means she's completely willing to empower his excesses on immigration and race.
It's fine to judge her accordingly.
Admittedly, the study does a poor job of sussing out where facts and opinions overlap. For example, the authors say Republicans believe Democrats hate police, border enforcement, and America itself. Most liberals, of course, would disagree, and the study itself says that 85 percent of Democrats reject the notion that police are "bad people," 71 percent reject open borders, and 82 percent say they're proud to be American.
But from a conservative standpoint, the tendency of left-of-center activists to criticize police abuses, Trump's immigration policies, and even aspects of America's founding probably does look questionable and wrongheaded. This isn't necessarily misunderstanding, but disagreement. Republicans don't see Democrats like Democrats see themselves. Still, Democrats haven't voted a president into office who panders to and confirms the views of the party's most extreme and vitriolic voters. Republicans, on the other hand, have.
Whether or not your neighbor's secret values align fairly closely with your own doesn't really matter. What does matter is action. Rank-and-file Republicans across the country continue to support a president widely recognized for making xenophobia the core of his political message. And it's not unreasonable for Democrats to think Republicans share the views of a president they so ardently support.
The folks behind the More in Common Project are obviously well-intentioned. And they have a point: Americans should seek to accurately understand the views of their political foes — and maybe it wouldn't hurt for all of us to seek out the common ground that apparently does exist. But if Democrats are misunderstanding Republicans' beliefs, it's probably at least in part because they're judging by the real actions and rhetoric of the man in charge. Republicans support Trump and almost all that he does. Democrats might as well believe them.