While July Fourth is the holiday that most directly celebrates Americans’ common heritage, this year it comes as their extreme divides underscore how difficult it has become for any president to set a unified direction for the country.
From vaccination rates to voting rights, from immigration policy to racial equity, blue and red states are hurtling in antithetical directions at staggering speed, even amid President Joe Biden’s persistent calls for greater national unity and his attempts to foster more bipartisan agreement in Washington. Across all of these issues, and more, Republican-controlled states are pursuing policies that amount to a wholesale effort to counter Biden’s direction at the national level – even as they look to block some of his key initiatives with lawsuits.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House at a celebration of Independence Day.
In some ways, the red state recoil from Biden’s agenda echoes the “resistance” that exploded in Democratic-controlled states to Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency; in other ways, today’s actions in red states may constitute even greater evidence of the country pulling apart. Especially striking is that, as during last year’s lockdowns and mask mandates, the separation between red and blue America is occurring not only at the level of government policy, but also in individual behavior, with all studies showing Republicans are being vaccinated against the coronavirus at a much lower rate than Democrats.
Taken together, these centrifugal pressures call into question not only the ability of any president to unify the nation, but also his or her ability even to chart a common course for more than roughly half of the country – either red or blue America. This divergence, across a wide range of issues and personal choices, is rooted in the continuing political re-sorting that has divided the parties more sharply than ever along demographic and geographic lines and produced two political coalitions holding inimical views on the fundamental social and economic changes remaking America. And that destabilizing process shows no signs of slowing, much less reversing, even after Trump – who fomented division as a central component of his political strategy – has left the White House.
“This is the long arc of history,” says Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA and one of the founders of the NationScape polling project studying American attitudes. “There are these moments that exacerbate things, like Trump running for that nomination in 2016: If he hadn’t run, the sorting would probably be taking a little longer. But it was always marching in that direction. You try to just ask yourself what stops it, or what reverses it, or what slows it? … I can’t come up with a good answer to that question.”
The most common way to measure the daunting distance between red and blue America is through voting behavior and attitudes in public opinion polls. Polling has shown that the gap between voters from the two parties in their approval ratings for a newly elected president has steadily widened over recent decades. For Biden, despite all his efforts to govern as a unifying figure, that gap has reached a mountainous height: an ABC/Washington Post poll released on Saturday found that his approval rating among Democrats (at 94%) was 86 points above his rating among Republicans (8%).
These results came even as the nonpartisan Pew Research Center last week released its “validated voters” study, one of the most respected efforts to quantify how the key groups in the electorate voted in last November’s presidential election. Although the study found some shifts from the 2016 election (with Trump, for instance, improving among Hispanics and Biden gaining some ground among White men both with and without college degrees), mostly it recorded extraordinary stability in the lines of division between the parties over both elections. Other studies of the electorate’s behavior, from the media exit polls to the Cooperative Election Study sponsored by a consortium of academic researchers, have also concluded that continuity far exceeded change when comparing 2020 with 2016.
“To the extent we see differences between 2016 and 2020 we are talking about very marginal ones,” says Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner, a co-director of the Cooperative Election Study.
This stability may seem surprising after all the emotional and even unprecedented events of the Trump presidency, capped by a once-in-a-century pandemic that disrupted every aspect of daily life. But political scientists like Vavreck and Alan Abramowitz of Emory University say the continuity between the two elections reflects the intractability of the differences between voters in the two partisan coalitions. Reinforcing that picture is the striking finding that Biden’s current approval rating, both overall and among the electorate’s major groups, hasn’t really changed much from his vote among them last fall, even though Americans are expressing much more optimism about the country’s direction as society reopens and the economy recovers.
“I don’t think we are going to see an election anymore where a president wins with 52 or 53% of the vote and then has a 62% approval rating,” says Republican pollster Glen Bolger.
While some analysts have asserted that political polarization is driven primarily by leaders like Trump who encourage it, Abramowitz argues that today it is grounded in a much more intractable dynamic: As the electorate has sorted between the parties on lines of race, education, generation, religion and geography, the rank and file of each coalition now holds more ideologically consistent views on the core questions facing America – and those views are more consistently hostile to the perspective on the other side.
In an upcoming paper he shared with Fintech Zoom, Abramowitz notes that long-term survey data shows that compared with the 1970s, voters in each party now hold much more negative views of the other party and its presidential nominee. That hostility, he argues, is rooted in these fundamentally clashing worldviews.
“One of the most important reasons why Democrats and Republicans intensely dislike each other is that they intensely disagree on a wide range of issues including the size and scope of the welfare state, abortion, gay and transgender rights, race relations, climate change, gun control and immigration,” Abramowitz writes. “As long as the parties remain on the opposite sides of almost all of the major issues facing the country, feelings of mistrust and animosity are unlikely to diminish even if Donald Trump ceases to play a major role in the political process.”
This year’s sharp turn to the right in red states has provided immediate evidence to support that prediction. Red states have erupted in what looks like a spasm of resistance to the left-leaning tilt in national policy that Democrats are executing through their unified control of Washington.
As I’ve written, Republican-controlled states this year are advancing aggressively conservative initiatives across a panoramic array of issues. Among other things, red states are moving to loosen restrictions on gun owners and tighten (or even potentially eliminate) access to legal abortion; toughen penalties on public protesters; block transgender teens from competing in school sports; bar local governments from reducing their police budgets; and ban school curriculums that look to examine racism in American history.
Most of these policies steer in precisely the opposite direction that Biden is trying to set at the national level. Nine red states, for instance, have passed laws limiting or entirely blocking the ability of local law enforcement officials to enforce federal gun laws. But nowhere is this red state attempt to counter the President’s national direction more tangible than on immigration. As Biden has moved to reverse many of Trump’s hardline immigration policies, Republican attorneys general led by Texas’ Ken Paxton have already sued to block several of the new administration’s immigration initiatives.
Even more provocatively, Republican governors from states including Florida, Arkansas, Ohio and Tennessee have deployed National Guard troops or other law enforcement from their states to Texas’ border with Mexico in response to requests from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, even though the federal government retains sole enforcement power there and National Guard members cannot apprehend undocumented migrants.
“This is definitely red states saying we want the kind of restrictive policies that Biden is dismantling,” says Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service for President Bill Clinton.
Meissner says it’s possible to interpret these deployments as the mirror image of the “sanctuary” policies that Democratic-controlled cities and the state of California instituted to limit their cooperation with Trump’s immigration enforcement agenda. But Republicans have taken their resistance to a new level, she notes, in also seeking to counter Biden’s plan by mobilizing private resources from politically sympathetic supporters.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, like Abbott a potential 2024 GOP presidential contender, announced last week that a conservative billionaire was funding the deployment of the South Dakota Guard to the Texas border. Abbott has already set up a website to solicit public donations to continue building the wall along the Texas border that Trump pursued but Biden has abandoned.
As on immigration, red states are directly confronting Biden on voting rights. Republican-controlled states from Florida, Georgia and Arkansas to Iowa, Montana and Arizona this year have approved a torrent of measures making it more difficult to vote, almost all of them with virtually every state legislative Republican voting yes and nearly every Democrat voting no. Democrats have responded both by advancing legislation to establish a nationwide floor of voting rights – such as guaranteed early voting and on-demand absentee balloting – and with a Justice Department lawsuit against the Georgia law.
But after a GOP filibuster recently blocked the Democrats’ federal voting rights legislation, it’s uncertain whether the Democratic Senate majority will revise the chamber’s rules to enable them to pass a modified version of it. And the six Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices raised huge obstacles to the legal efforts to block the red state offensive on voting with their ruling last week weakening the Voting Rights Act.
Those twin barriers to national action raise the prospect that the months ahead will see the continued emergence of a two-tier system of American voting, with access becoming increasingly curtailed in red states even as blue states from Virginia to Washington take steps to expand it.
A two-tier system is exactly what’s already apparent in utilization of the coronavirus vaccine. All of the 20 states (plus the District of Columbia) where the highest shares of adults have received at least one shot were won last fall by Biden; 20 of the 21 states where the lowest percentage have obtained at least one shot were won by Trump (Georgia, the sole exception, is controlled by a Republican state government). The latest surveys – including polls from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation and the new ABC/Washington Post poll – find an enormous gulf between the share of Democrats (86% in the ABC/WP) and Republicans (45%) who say they have received at least one dose of the vaccine so far. Stunningly, almost all of the remaining Republicans say they do not expect to get vaccinated at any point.
A new study released last week by researchers at UCLA underscores how head-spinning these contrasts are. The paper, from a team of researchers led by anthropology professor Daniel Fessler and graduate student Theodore Samore, notes that studies typically have found that individuals who express socially conservative views typically display more, not less, concern than social liberals about threats like a virus outbreak. But that pattern shattered for the coronavirus outbreak: While the small number of Democrats who identified as social conservatives showed heightened sensitivity to the threat – measured by their willingness to take steps such as wearing masks and washing hands – socially conservative Republicans were less willing to engage in any of those behaviors.
The researchers, Samore said, found that rejection of those safety precautions was linked most closely with distrust of scientists, distrust of the mainstream media (and lack of exposure to it) and attitudes of economic conservatism (which may have translated into greater priority on reopening the economy than combating the virus). All of those, of course, are attitudes now common in the modern Republican coalition.
“What we think is going on here is a clash between people’s inclinations … and their political beliefs about trusting science or exposure to different media sources,” says Samore.
Fessler says these tendencies are reinforced by the social and political sorting that has diminished Americans’ exposure to neighbors of contrasting political views.
“You might be a liberal 20-something, and you might feel not particularly threatened, but if everyone around is saying, ‘I got vaxxed,’ you can get tipping point effects” that encourage you to do so as well, he says; the opposite, he adds, works in reducing appetite for the vaccine among conservatives.
The latest Kaiser poll dramatically underlines Fessler’s observation. Kaiser found that while two-thirds of Democrats say they live in households where everyone has been vaccinated, that’s true for less than 40% of Republicans; nearly that many Republicans, in fact, say they live in households where no one has been vaccinated.
Fessler says these diverging attitudes on the value of vaccines, despite all the evidence of their effectiveness and safety, encapsulates a much larger problem: the development of information “niches” that allow falsehoods to take root for a large audience. The key “challenge facing democracies in the 21st century,” he argues, is that “while the internet promised the democratization of knowledge – the idea anyone can learn anything, and the connection of people regardless of geography and personal characteristics – instead the perverse result has been that it’s possible to occupy one’s own little niche in the information environment.”
Because “there are lots of other people occupying that” same space, he adds, no matter how implausible the ideas being presented in those circles, “our evolved psychology tells us this must be reality because everyone I am interacting with thinks the way that I do.”
That dynamic likely helps explain why such a staggeringly large percentage of Republicans accept Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen, even though courts uniformly have dismissed his “evidence.” It also helps explain why an ominously large share of Republican voters (especially those who most rely on far-right media sources) even accept the byzantine QAnon conspiracy theory.
Divergent information flows are not the only reason that red and blue America are pulling apart; the preference for contrasting information sources, in fact, may be more symptom than cause of the underlying demographic, generational and geographic separation of the parties. Taken together, all of these factors produced an Independence Day weekend when foundational questions of American unity and commitment to democracy seemed more fraught than at any time since the Civil War.
The Declaration of Independence that Americans celebrated over the weekend begins with the confident assertion that it is “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Today, it is unclear what set of principles, if any, America’s fractious 50 states might agree on across the widening red-blue divide.