America is increasingly polarized.
That isn’t news to anyone who’s been following the social research of the past couple years. After the 2016 presidential election, David Wasserman of FiveThirtyEight wrote that “America’s political fabric, geographically, is tearing apart,” and suggested this should be seen as a “flashing danger sign.” In Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic, which came out in May 2016, he wrote of a hollowed-out society in which mediating institutions and social capital had all but disappeared from American life, leaving in their wake a jaded individualism and growing political rancor.
But a new Pew Research Poll suggests that this polarization—across geographic, cultural, and political lines—is growing even more pronounced with time. Our political differences are strengthening, with an increasing number of urban Americans moving further left and more than half of rural voters (54 percent) declaring their allegiance to the GOP. What’s more, most urban and rural Americans see themselves as judged and misunderstood by each other, with a majority from both groups saying those who don’t live in their types of communities have a negative view of those who do.
Urban and rural divides are not new, as University of Wisconsin political scientist Kathy Cramer told the New York Times. What’s unique about our moment, however, is that “cultural divides overlap with political divides, which overlap with geography,” creating a maelstrom of suspicion and disconnect.
This remarkable growth in polarization leads the Times to ask an important question: are we sorting ourselves, increasingly moving to fit in with those in our “camp”? If not, how and why are the numbers becoming so extreme?
Cramer, for her part, suggests that place-based resentment is becoming a sort of identity marker, especially as politicians employ “us versus them” rhetoric. Shopping at Whole Foods or going to the gun range have increasingly become political acts, talismans of personality and place with markedly partisan affiliations. Our sorting seems to have more to do with an increased tendency to tie cultural and social acts (as well as geographic identity) to politics than it does with a marked shift in our habits or moving patterns.
Alongside these differences, however, the Pew poll also shows remarkable (and somewhat alarming) similarities between urban and rural communities. Both groups are about equally worried over the impact of the opioid epidemic on their neighborhoods. Both are worried about job availability. Young people from both are more mobile and restless—although “Roughly a third (32%) of young adults in rural areas say they are very or mostly dissatisfied with life in their community; this is significantly higher than the share of young adults in suburban areas who say the same (21%).”
About four in 10 Americans across geographic divides say they don’t feel attached to their current communities. While knowing one’s neighbors, owning one’s house, and living in one place for a long period of time all increase the chances of community involvement and satisfaction, only three in 10 Americans say they know most or all of their neighbors—and a third say they would move away if they could. While a greater percentage of rural folks say they know their neighbors, that doesn’t mean they interact more often. Indeed, according to Pew, community involvement doesn’t vary much by community type: “Among those who know at least some of their neighbors, rural Americans are no more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to say they interact with them on a regular basis.”
Obviously, these figures could be worse. Most Americans say they still know at least some of their neighbors; large numbers in urban, suburban, and rural communities say they remain close to—or have moved back towards—their families. But there’s still a marked sense of alienation, suspicion, and discontent displayed in this poll. Not only do disparate American communities suspect each other of unkindness and disrespect, many have retreated from neighborliness and association within their own circles.
These findings reminded me of the suggestion in Patrick Deneen’s recently released Why Liberalism Failed that the political ideology of liberalism drives us apart, making us more lonely and polarized than ever. As Christine Emba writes in her Washington Post review of Deneen’s book:
As liberalism has progressed, it has done so by ever more efficiently liberating each individual from “particular places, relationships, memberships, and even identities—unless they have been chosen, are worn lightly, and can be revised or abandoned at will.” In the process, it has scoured anything that could hold stable meaning and connection from our modern landscape—culture has been disintegrated, family bonds devalued, connections to the past cut off, an understanding of the common good all but disappeared.
That latter loss—of a common understanding of the good—seems particularly applicable to the Pew poll’s findings regarding polarization. Although our country has always struggled with an urban-rural divide, it could be that our lack of a common conception of the good has made it even worse. Left and Right subscribe to different liberal tenets that tear at association and community: on the Right, “classical liberalism celebrated the free market, which facilitated the radical expansion of choice,” while the Left’s liberalism “celebrated the civil right to personal choice and self-definition, along with the state that secured this right by enforcing the law.” As Emba notes, both forms of liberalism foster “a headlong and depersonalized pursuit of individual freedom and security that demands no concern for the wants and needs of others, or for society as a whole.”
Thus we disconnect in terms both broad and intimate, struggling to equate our political autonomy and self-definition with the demands of empathy, neighborliness, and service. The fact that our urban and rural communities are so suspicious of each other suggests a degree of navel-gazing and self-consciousness that is deeply detrimental, if not tempered by a proper degree of rationality and generosity.
Fixing these problems will require more than a distrust of our political leaders’ schismatic rhetoric, instrumental in entrenching our divide though that rhetoric has been. Turning to the state for answers or blame is one of the reasons we’re in trouble in the first place. A healthy effort to “plug in”—to connect at the local level, to dialogue with our political “enemies,” and to engage in civic and philanthropic efforts—may be the best way to cut back on some of this rancor and polarization.
In the conclusion of Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen suggests that we need to foster local “counter-anticultures”: bastions of community, civic engagement, philanthropy, and religion to counteract our cultural and social vacuum. Levin recommends something similar in Fractured Republic, turning to Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” and the reinvigoration of associational life as a balm for widespread fragmentation.
This newest Pew poll suggests that the more deeply we know each other—and the more time we spend together—the less lonely and restless we will feel. That isn’t a shocking revelation, but it’s an important one nonetheless. Those who feel nourished and cared for by their communities will feel less cheated by the state and more empowered to confront the changes and dilemmas in their neighborhoods. It may be that by itself this can’t bridge our deep urban-rural divide, considering how widespread our resentment and political differences are. But I do think a community that feels self-sufficient and nourished is less likely to harbor feelings of resentment and suspicion toward those outside its borders: there’s less temptation towards discontent, and often a deeper awareness of the issues we share in common. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, need the same things: committed citizens, generous philanthropists, passionate civic leaders, savvy planners and political leaders, strong local institutions, and vigorous community involvement. They often struggle with the same things, too: loneliness, despair, unemployment, fragmented families, weak civic and educational institutions, a lack of funds, poor urban planning, and so on.
While our national discourse champions rancorous politics, local associations and news celebrate self-empowerment, service, and communal ties. They emphasize every community’s desire to become the best version of itself. The more we can focus on these things, the better.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.