Driven apart by politics

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No matter how New Yorkers vote in next Tuesday’s presidential primary, a rerun of the 2020 race between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump appears virtually inevitable. Both candidates already have won enough delegates to be nominated at this summer’s party conventions.

Polls show that most Americans do not want another Biden-Trump contest, in part because both are historically unpopular. However, voters also believe this race could worsen the nation’s deep political divisions.

In a Rochester Beacon reader survey conducted in January, nearly all respondents said they were concerned about political polarization—and 85 percent described themselves as “very concerned.” This aligns with national polls in recent years that have shown political polarization to be among Americans’ top concerns.

This week, the Beacon conducted a follow-up survey to explore this issue more closely. Nearly 300 readers took part; among them, 60 percent identified their political affiliation as Democrat, 15 percent said Republican, and 23 percent answered unaffiliated or other party.

Regardless of affiliation, all survey participants said Americans are polarized politically, with 86 percent responding “very polarized.”

“We need more thoughtful positions that are based on facts and reason, and we need more tolerance of people who have different opinions than we do,” wrote DeWain Feller.

The partisan gap is reflected in the responses to another question in the Beacon survey. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of participants said most of their close friends share their political views. Broken down by political affiliation, that answer was chosen by 76 percent of Democrats, 37 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of unaffiliated/other party voters.

Opinions about the two major political parties were sharply divided. Seventy percent said they have a favorable overall opinion of the Democratic Party, versus 30 unfavorable. In contrast, only 7 percent had a favorable view of the Republican Party. One-quarter of respondents said they have an unfavorable opinion of both parties; only 1 percent described their opinion of both parties as favorable.

“It is heartbreaking to see people rally around Republicans that espouse hate and vilify immigrants,” commented Paul Bush. “It is equally disappointing to see the complete failure of the Democratic Party to put forth any credible candidates that believe in socially responsible, fiscally conservative leadership.”

This view of the two major parties is similar to a recent Pew Research Center survey on their presidential candidates: Twenty-six percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of both Biden and Trump. Pew said this “double negative” sentiment is “more common among younger adults than older adults,” in particular among “those who reject partisan labels—identifying as independent or ‘something else.’”

Asked who they would vote for if the 2024 presidential election were held today, 74 percent of Beacon readers chose Biden, versus 9 percent for Trump and 5 percent for independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Among the Republican respondents, 24 percent said they supported Biden; by contrast, only 2 percent of Democratic respondents said they would vote for Trump. Kennedy’s support was drawn equally from Democrats and Republicans, in addition to unaffiliated/other party voters.

The readers who responded to the Beacon survey lean more toward the Democratic Party than the Monroe County electorate. The county Board of Elections’ official fall 2023 enrollment was Democrat, 42 percent; Republican, 26 percent; and unaffiliated/other parties, 33 percent.

The Beacon survey participants also were asked to identify factors they believe have been major or significant drivers of political polarization. Politicians and political leaders (75 percent) and conservative media and news (74 percent) were at the top of the list, with nearly two-thirds (62 percent) also citing social media companies. Another factor named by nearly half (47 percent) of respondents: wealthy political donors.

“The polarization is a result of multiple factors, but chief among them is the obscene amount of money in politics. …Get the money out of politics and one major source of polarization will be eradicated,” wrote Alan Ziegler.

Beliefs and misbeliefs

Nationally, polling and academic research on political polarization is voluminous, with most studies pointing to an increasingly sharp divide. Pew Research Center has been tracking the issue for a number of years. Last fall, it reported that Americans are less likely now to hold a mix of conservative and liberal views. “The median Republican is now more conservative than 97% of Democrats, and the median Democrat is more liberal than 95% of Republicans. … (By comparison), 23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat in 1994, while 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 1% and 3%, respectively.”

Some researchers argue, however, that the U.S. electorate is not as polarized as it is perceived to be. In a September 2023 report, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote that “American voters are less ideologically polarized than they think they are, and that misperception is greatest for the most politically engaged people. … Most partisans hold major misbeliefs about the other party’s preferences that lead them to think there is far less shared policy belief.”

The report adds that it is true U.S. politicians are highly ideologically polarized, and the nation’s political system favors candidates who highlight that divide. As a result, even though many Americans are not as polarized on issues as they believe themselves to be, they are “emotionally polarized.”

Political scientists refer to this as “affective polarization.” Shanto Iyengar, a professor of political science at Stanford University who is credited with coining the term, co-authored a 2019 paper that explored the animosity between the political parties. “Ordinary Americans increasingly dislike and distrust those from the other party,” the paper states. “Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines.” Iyengar and his co-authors trace the origins of affective polarization to “the power of partisanship as a social identity.”

“It’s feelings based,” Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity,” recently told the Washington Post. “It’s polarization that’s based on our feelings for each other, not based on extremely divergent policy preferences.”

Where do voters across the spectrum find common ground? It’s in their dim view of the nation’s politics. Asked to choose a single word to describe the state of U.S. politics today, most Beacon readers’ responses were highly negative. The most frequently used word: dysfunctional.

This again reflects sentiments nationwide. Only 4 percent of U.S. adults say the political system is working extremely or very well, Pew reported last September. Positive views of many governmental and political institutions, it noted, “are at historic lows.”

“We are in the process of willfully, intentionally giving up what the rest of the world wishes it had,” Beacon reader Michael Anderson Stone observes.

Those who took part in the Beacon survey, which was conducted Tuesday, were asked to share their views on political polarization—its causes and possible solutions. The following are the complete signed written comments of survey participants. Many additional unsigned responses were submitted. As a matter of policy, the Beacon does not post unsigned comments.

Readers’ thoughts on political polarization:

Republican elected officials have not been held accountable for their betrayal of democratic values. Fearing an angry Republican electorate and donors that might reject them, they have instead chosen to support bigotry, misogyny and anti-democratic values. The party is beyond saving. I have very little hope that this country will be able to step back from the brink. There are simply too many people who can acquire power and/or wealth by spewing hateful ideas.
—Aaron E. Wicks

Economic disparity is a gigantic issue. Poverty needs to be dealt with. The middle class is dying and desperation is growing.
—Thomas J. Driscoll

Truth has become secondary to ‘we can’t let Them win’. Science and technology matters, people with experience in their fields of work (from surgeons to truck drivers) do in fact know better than keyboard jockeys who claim to know otherwise. People who may not have as much higher education have to be convinced that their interests are being recognized and not duped into voting for someone who will stab them in the back once elected. Make people feel safe, invest in all levels of schooling for everyone, plant more trees, and stop listening to the rhetoric about how every non-White non-heterosexual, non-Christian in this country is pure evil. Also, do everything possible to stop %^&*$#! Putin.
—Jeff Czajka

A population attracted to simple-but-wrong answers to complex problems, gerrymandering voting districts, pursuing the political annihilation of your opponents because they are morally wrong, pressing every advantage to the maximum, high stakes never ending campaigning over everything—with survival on the line.
—Griffin Jones

I don’t mind Congress having spirited debate about our governance, but when the other party seems to forget that they are there to improve things for all of us and plays “Gotcha” instead, it is truly demoralizing.
—Eleanor McLear

This is Rome before the fall. We’ve had it so good for so long that too many of us don’t realize how good we have it and what the alternative really is and feels like. We are in the process of willfully, intentionally giving up what the rest of the world wishes it had. We are not on the bottom trying to fight our way up. We are on top trying to fight our way down.
—Michael Anderson Stone

Based on real value differences and misinformation.
—Suzanne Olson

There used to be mutual purpose, respect and tolerance for differing points of view and a shared sense of vision. Today, there is very little or none. Extremist politicians get elected and poison the well further. I have trouble comprehending that so many people hold beliefs that would compel them to vote for such toxic politicians that take away our rights. Is this really who we are as a people? Apparently, the answer is yes. It is heartbreaking to see people rally around Republicans that espouse hate and vilify immigrants. It is equally disappointing to see the complete failure of the Democratic Party to put forth any credible candidates that believe in socially responsible, fiscally conservative leadership. The Republicans, if you can even call them that at this point, can only put forth more vitriol and divisiveness. The Democrats cannot find a way forward to put America on a sound financial footing and put forth a candidate that everyone can get behind (and is not 80-something). It’s just sad, downright pathetic. Look at what we’ve become. Is this who we are as a people? This pathology will not correct in my lifetime. I fear from this generation coming up; they ought to care more than they actually seem to because they will not have the life we had.
—Paul Bush

We have too much rhetoric on both sides and not enough listening and finding the middle ground virtue offers as the best place to practice politics in a Republic. The current atmosphere of winner takes all is an invitation to a life cycle that has to change every time one or the other group rests control. We are a complex society where our founders sought room for respect for all people being lived out in the present moment where at least for a majority pitting one against another seems to be the goal and we seem to choose to ignore the chaos that has created.
—Patrick B Fox

I think “polarization” is a misnomer. Even the “radical” wing of the Democratic Party is more conservative than the mainstream left in Europe and Canada. It is the full-on embrace of nativism and the politics of resentment by the Republican Party, not just Trump, that is the problem. I follow a very right-wing couple on Facebook and their political posts are not just frightening, they’re objectively delusional, insisting that undocumented migrants receive vast benefits and live at the expense of hard working white Americans, believing that Biden has ended or limited domestic oil production when (alas) it continues to increase, and so on. This is a one-sided crisis, and to call it polarization is a misguided exercise in both-sidesism.
—Michael Steinberg

Although political polarization isn’t new, it started in earnest with Newt Gingrich, Trump and his surrogates have effectively weaponized perceived grievance into a wedge that deeply divides America. Rather than focusing on the many things that should be uniting us, right wing politicians seek to carve out a fraction of citizens that they can manipulate into supporting them. Meanwhile Democrats focus on their base and fail to recognize the needs of non-minority disenfranchised voters. Tragically, middle American old style Republicans haven’t found their voice or courage to take back their party. Citizens in all states need to be reminded that we are the UNITED STATES of AMERICA, and our similar, deeply held values and beliefs should be an unassailable bond. Single issue voters are missing the big picture, and in the long run may be creating unintended consequences in other crucial mainstream concerns. One solution is to ensure every student gets ongoing civics education, and a deeper understanding of American history.
—Frank Orienter

Native American author Steven Charleston in his book, “Ladder to the Light” (pg. 112), writes: “If (Native American leaders) in the traditional sense, were engineers. If they could convince people they had a bright idea for fixing a problem or dealing with a need, then people would entrust them to do that for as long as it took… but leaders knew their positions would be temporary. Once the job was done, they would return to the collective, the extended family of the nation. This time limit was critical for a spiritual reason: my ancestors understood that the only natural predator of truth in the jungle of politics is power.” Truth is essential for our Democracy and we’ve lost our way.
—Bill Wynne

Read “How We Win the Civil War.”
—Liz Brown

The polarization is a result of multiple factors, but chief among them is the obscene amount of money in politics. It helps create legislators in power to lose their courage and their moral compass. Get the money out of politics and one major source of polarization will be eradicated.
—Alan Ziegler

The political disarray in the United States is making our country not only a target for worldwide criticism but also makes us vulnerable to international bad actors taking advantage of our political divisions.
—Martha Osowski

There seems to be an increased trend toward simplistic binary thinking. The notion that there can be a range of viable options seems to evade too many people. Not all political positions can be neatly categorized as either “conservative” or “liberal.” nor should we even try to classify all political positions. There also seems to be less tolerance of moderate positions. Moderate does not mean “sitting on the fence,” “undecided,” or “vanilla.” Hard right or hard left does not mean “dedicated” or “true believer.” What we have today too often is blind acceptance of ideology that is insulated from reality. We need more thoughtful positions that are based on facts and reason, and we need more tolerance of people who have different opinions than we do.
—DeWain Feller

I once read that the airplane was guilty of polarization. Congress people used to spend more time socializing with members of the other party prior to frequent flying back to their home.
—Sheila Gissin Weinbach

We lack strong leaders of high character in this age of popular social media.
—John Roth

The loss of in-person contact seems to have resulted in online incivility. “I can’t see you, so I don’t consider you an actual person; therefore I am free to make despicable statements.”
—Nancy Brown

Public dissemination of non-factual and inaccurate information.
—David Bliek

I want to believe that most Americans are more center leaning with a vocal minority at either extremes, the far right currently taking the cake. Social media and news programs exasperate this extreme for clicks and viewership, making political polarization appear greater than it is. There are several ways to limit the extreme voices in our politics; end gerrymandering, allow rank choice voting, and publicly fund campaigns.
—Renee McNiffe

Extreme political polarization is certainly a threat to the long-term future of our nation. And it will be a challenging trend to overcome. However, two changes could lead us in a different direction: 1) limiting the influence of large campaign donors and “super PACs”, 2) better education and transparency for the voters on the candidates’ records and the impact of their policies. “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” — Thomas Jefferson
—David Powe

We no longer value truth. There needs to be more real time fact checking and people not allowed to voice lies and go unchallenged.
—Dan Kennelly

Individuals prefer news sources that confirm their biases, and the media outlets cater to their readers/listeners/viewers by giving them what they want. Over time, it becomes difficult to be understanding of opposing viewpoints.
—D. Young

Getting past the polarization being sold to us from the media requires listening to things we don’t want to hear, reading books and longform journalism to get past a surface-level understanding of ideas, and resisting the temptation to grab the simplest solution to problems that can be chanted as a slogan. I don’t think most Americans are willing to do those things for their country, although they used to. Now the People want low interest rates every year, no matter what it does to future generations, because the People are in debt.
—Kate Fall

Politics are politics and have always been divisive. I believe the current status of things is due to the unchecked power of social media and a lack of media literacy. Many people today do not recognize the difference between a journalist and a talking head who is paid to share opinions and increase dollars for the advertisers. Unlike news media—newspapers, magazines, radio, etc. —anyone can post anything and pass it off as “fact” rather than blatant dis- or mis-information. Social media companies should not be in the news “business” and there should be checks and balances for every single political or societal post along with a tag saying whether or not it is true. Maintaining free speech is important but they allow stories designed to look like they are from valid news sources that contain blatant mis/disinformation and this has allowed the manipulation of the masses. Facts are still facts. They have improved in recent years but there is still not enough protection from false information. Also, with the presidency of Donald Trump the media never fact-checked him, real time, so he was able to spew whatever he wanted without consequence. Entertainment networks like Fox, Newsmax and OAN have relied heavily on that propaganda and people who are getting their news there are living in a completely different world than those of us who are getting our news from other sources. I think the social media companies should force a tutorial on sign-in on the identification of fake news at least once a year (maybe twice on election years). I also think media literacy should be a mandatory class for students in high school so this new generation won’t struggle with identifying what is real on social media like those of us who didn’t grow up entrenched in it. Those same type of classes should be rolled out to community centers/senior centers, etc. across the country for free as well. An educated public is important for the wellbeing of us all.
—Jen Casasanta

My age now is 82 years old. My lifetime I have voted the person and not party. I have never seen or heard of a more despicable, lying, conceited, disrespectful and non-qualified person to be President of US. One more adjective ….. ignorant.
—Gary DeBlase

Trump planted the seed for most of it. He woke up/allowed for exposing a very ugly side of some very ignorant people, forcing unwanted religious ideals and unconstitutional policies on the country, making women 2nd class citizens once again, sending us backwards and hurling towards totalitarianism.
—Kat Sweeney

I would like to see a return of the Republican Party to their core ideals and away from all the fabricated conspiracy theories. Maybe even offer/support a solution to something (like the border bill) instead of politicizing everything. I’d get back to voting Republican again…
—Rick Papaj

Overturn Citizens United and get Supreme Court judges to retire.
—Ruhi Maker

Clearly distinct perspectives on Federal, State, and Individual power and responsibility. On-going Racial disparity.
—Mike Bleeg

Since I was a child and would see the ads on TV with politicians trying to make each other look bad, I couldn’t wait for election season to end. I dread a repeat of the 2020 election and fear for the outcome either way; if Trump wins, will hate crimes escalate again and if Biden wins will there be anarchy again? I believe social media algorithms have caused polarization to get to where it is today, feeding people more of the same, whether it’s true or not. While I believe AI has many positive aspects, I expect it will be used in unethical ways to manipulate the 2024 election. Like many of our U.S. systems, politics needs an overhaul of some kind; a three-party system, age limits and/or an emotional intelligence assessment of interested candidates?!? There should be diversity in every office, so all people and demographics have a voice, with an emotionally intelligent and ethical leader at the top who listens, can filter through the noise and make rational decisions that are in the best interest of the American people and the future of our country.
—Melanie DellaPietra

Most people I know are sick and tired of the polarization. So why would they even consider voting for someone who Tweets every day about how the “other side” is the enemy of the state? Leadership shapes culture. We need to consider that when voting.
—John Ward

Yeats said it more eloquently than I can: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
—Ruth Yanoff

Nations rise and fall. Some are destroyed from the outside and some are destroyed from the inside. In our case the current “leadership” has opened the border and America is failing and collapsing accomplished primarily via its own misguided political effort. We have no one to blame but ourselves. Our enemies are licking their collective chops. Semper Fi.
—Josh Jochem Porte

I believe the ability to compromise has been lost by most of our elected officials which I believe is driven by the loss of the belief that our Country is “by the people for the people.” Unfortunately many of our elected officials have forgotten they are elected to serve the citizens that elected them, not serve themselves. Peace and courage,
—Mike Bausch

Both the conservative and liberal political factions have developed extreme positions. We need to work toward moderation in our political discourse.
—Ralph Schwonke

I do not think the country is as polarized as we see through mainstream media. If you put some people in a room without cameras or social media clicks, I do think you’d see the possibility for greater commonality. Our political structure invites this polarization because we restrict ourselves to a two party system—a winner and loser. We need to move away from ONLY showing political debates. The American people need more examples of how to compromise and understand issues at a deep and personal level. We need to require those who run for political office to have a more informed and multi-perspective civic education about people, history and policies instead of viewing issues exclusively through a party lens. Perhaps this should start in high school. We have always had politicians with personal and economic agendas in government. Today, those agendas feel more extreme, directly attack social identities and are reflective of a world moving towards dictatorship. Those who shape the agendas use the political system to drive irrational fear, which discourages thoughtful political engagement. And they are very good at it.
—Taj Smith

Polarization is at its worst level since the election of 1860. The threat to the political and social cohesiveness of the United States is likewise at its highest level since that year.
—Michael J. Nighan

Wealthy and poor, old and young, well-educated and undereducated, too many Americans have allowed themselves to acquire a sense of “entitlement” to a perception of success, one beyond practical reality.
—Lee Loomis

Polarization seems to be fed by loyalty to beliefs captured in sound bites rather than seeking a depth of understanding of the consequences of the policies being advocated. Constructive civil dialogue seldom occurs between opposing positions. At present, there is little agreement on the role of government in relation to its people and our country’s responsibilities as a participant in the world. The forces of business are not moderated by considerations of long-term effects on the health of society.  Some religious institutions are attempting to translate their beliefs into law, not recognizing the wisdom of the separation of church and state. There are many forces at play skewing the democratic processes and very few that require us to work together toward common national goals. If we can preserve the democratic processes and moderate the forces that undermine the responsiveness to the wishes of the people, regardless of how misguided we may feel at the time, we will arrive at a better place. Our strength comes from the collective wisdom of the people. And that can only happen as long as we maintain the principles of a democracy.
—Ed Saphar

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. Data visualizations by Jacob Schermerhorn. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

3 thoughts on “Driven apart by politics

  1. Halfway through Obama’s first term after when he said he wanted to transform America, but he didn’t exactly say how, after giving him two years to prove his leadership, I didn’t believe him Although I don’t think our country was or is perfect I think we have one of the best countries in the world, but I didn’t trust why he would want to transform it, and it wasn’t until recently when Biden said the same thing that I realized he wanted us to move towards socialism which we seem to be heading to a more socialistic direction. I didn’t trust what he had to say so I left the Democratic Party. I was happy for the first few years to be an independent;however I could not vote in New York State primaries. Interestingly in some other states independent voters can vote in a primary but not here. Extremely unhappy with the current weak leadership we have now, I wanted to vote so I joined the Republican party. It’ does seem that many are polarized now to some degree but I cannot vote for the Democratic Party principals anymore. It’s not the same party. I grew up with. I find no reason to be loyal to one party or another depending on what their philosophy is. Those candidates in the Democratic Party, even though some are probably very good and I have voted for them before they are still part of the party and to some degree they must buy into it so I can’t vote for any Democrats anymore until I see a difference what they say and do. It’s very easy to change parties and it amazes me how many people stick to the party they grew go up with even though the party no longer believes in the same principals that it did years ago..
    It’s easy to switch parties and one can always change back if the situation changes. I just fine. I cannot believe in some of the principles of the Democratic Party in its manifesto. and it’s is not who I am. Maybe someday if I live that long I will go back to being an independent. I would Symp feel most comfortable there but not now. So you might be thinking well do I prefer Trump? The answer to that is when he was president we didn’t have the same problems we are having now. There were no wars. We were making real peace progress in the middle east far better than we had for years. Gas was cheaper. Taxes were less and life was generally better. It’s not the same now and I don’t think we’d have the same problems we’re having. No, Trump is not Perfect: No one is
    Including most of our presidents from the start of our country. I’m not looking for perfection. I am looking for someone who really cares about America and has policies that are good for this country.. I think Trump does and I don’t think Biden does or that his handlers do because he is incapable of standing up for this country on his own. Whether or not one is religious, you never hear Biden say “God bless America.” To me that is very telling of what he and his crew think.

  2. Consider the Francis Scott KEY BRIDGE collapse, in Baltimore, MD.
    We need to build bridges, not take them down, right?
    Fortunately, people in Baltimore have alternatives. to get around. They can take DETOURS, using tunnels, etc. But what happens if the “bridge of democracy” collapses, in 2024?
    “United, we stand. Divided, we fall” (Aesop, 550 BCE)
    How many voters are really concerned about the collapse of our Democratic system, right now?
    How many worry that the “economy, stupid” may collapse, soon, if Trump is elected?
    The Stock Market may go down, and stay down. Hiring may freeze and decline, etc, etc,
    I hope the people, in the Rochester area and all over the country will wake up, now.
    There is still time to turn the tide, against Donald Trump and the Right Wing insanity!
    “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
    O’er the land of the free
    And the home of the brave?” (Star – Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key (Bridge))

  3. The claim by today’s Trumpublicans that all of America’s problems (as well as our predicted demise as a nation) are somehow the result of allegedly “open borders”, while laughingly absurd on its face given America’s history as a nation of immigrants, at least has the appeal of being a traditional BS claim, having been used by conservatives as far back as complaints about French immigrants in the 1790s. Clearly, Taking Back America DOES mean taking us back to the 18th. Century.

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