As the 2020 election approaches and calls to impeach President Trump intensify, conflict and division continue to escalate in the United States.
A new poll confirms what many of us have known for quite some time: tension in the US is increasing, and the likely outcome is civil war.
Most Americans agree that we are becoming more divided.
Before we look at what the poll (which was conducted by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service) revealed, here is a bit of background:
The Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics) Battleground Poll is a national bipartisan survey measuring political opinion and civility among registered voters in the United States.
Initiated in June 1991, and housed at GU Politics since April 2019, the Battleground Polls have gained widespread media recognition as reliable bellwethers of national opinion and voters’ intentions.
The Battleground data projected the outcome of the 1992, 1996, and 2004 presidential race more precisely than any other similar effort in the country, including those of the major TV networks and national newspapers. In addition, Battleground Polls have consistently been major predictors of what is going to happen in approaching Congressional elections. (source)
To see the questionnaire, charts, tables, and analysis, click here.
According to the poll, a majority of Americans believe political, racial, and class divisions are getting worse. “This includes three-quarters or more of men and women; urban, suburban, and rural voters; approximately 7-in-10 or more voters in every age cohort; white, black, and Latinx voters; and nearly two-thirds of voters of all-partisan stripes,” a press release explains.
When voters were asked to rate divisions in America on a scale of 0-100, with 100 being the “edge of a civil war,” the mean response was 67.23.
Significant contradictions within the electorate were exposed by the poll:
Voters broadly agree with the premise that our political culture has become too uncivil and lacks a focus on solutions, and that common ground and compromise should be the goal for political leaders—while at the same time, equal numbers want leaders to “stand up to the other side” and stand up to “powerful special interests.”
These criticisms are not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course, but they do suggest a more complex and nuanced perspective on American politics, and one which goes beyond frustration over a decline in civility alone.
Voters also seem to disagree on the source of the incivility. Majorities of Republicans say Democratic political leaders, social media, large newspapers, CNN, and MSNBC are very responsible for our political division. Meanwhile, majorities of Democrats say Republican political leaders, social media, Fox News, wealthy special interests, and President Trump are very responsible. Independents single out just two actors as very responsible for divisive political discourse – social media and President Trump. (source)
People are troubled by how politicians are behaving.
The majority of those polled (88% agree, 71% of those strongly agree) are concerned and frustrated about the uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians. This concern was shared across the board, but especially so among women, Democrats, and African Americans.
Respondents also largely agreed (84%) that behavior that used to be seen as unacceptable is now accepted as normal behavior.
Politicians are not the only ones who are behaving badly, of course. If you read the comments on websites or social media, you know what I am talking about. Disagreements rapidly escalate into heated arguments. Name-calling and threats are not uncommon.
But when public figures behave badly – arguing and calling each other names on social media as if they are schoolchildren on a playground – it makes me wonder: how much are their actions influencing and empowering others to be obnoxious and rude to each other? Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own actions, of course, but is it too much to ask politicians and other public figures to speak in a respectful and polite manner?
Phrased another way: what happened to grace and class? Civil discourse appears to be a lost art, unfortunately.
Last year, in an article called Uncivil Behavior Is Praised Now and This Is How Civil Wars Start, Daisy wrote,
There’s something brewing in America since the last election and that is a complete lack of civility on all sides of the political spectrum. Uncivil behavior isn’t just widely accepted – it’s praised and cheered on. Hatred of one another is becoming the norm and this is how civil wars begin.
Aren’t we – the people – better humans than most politicians? As a non-voting libertarian, I see anyone who chooses politics as a career as an inherently unethical and immoral person. The reasons I believe this are beyond the scope of this article, but paying close attention to current events and politics for nearly 20 years led me to this conclusion (Daisy’s article Are We Really Free? Maybe It’s Time for a Personal Declaration of Independence aligns with my views).
Just because those who are “in charge” sling mud at each other doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. In fact, it would be in all of our best interests to try to get along, because the government thrives on civil unrest and division – it gives them “reasons” to take away more of our rights – including those covered by the First and Second Amendments (remember, the Second protects the First).
Americans want more compromise and integrity from politicians.
More than eight in 10 voters believe “compromise and common ground should be the goal for political leaders” (87% agree, including 64% strongly agree) and that they are “tired of leaders compromising their values and ideals and want leaders who will stand up to the other side” (84% agree, including 63% strongly agree). This sentiment is more pronounced among Republicans and rural voters than it is among Democrats and independents, as well as suburban and urban voters. Mo Elleithee, Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, said of this finding:
“Our Civility Poll finds that eighty percent of voters say that they both demand compromise from political leaders, but want political leaders who will stand up to the other side. That creates mixed messages for even the most skilled political leader trying to decide whether to be a fighter or a dealmaker.” (source)
I’d like to take this opportunity to pose a question: Are politicians really “leaders”?
A simple definition of leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.
Qualities of good leaders include:
- Ability to inspire
- Strong communication and listening skills
- Ability to empower others
- Empathy/caring/emotional intelligence
- Positive attitude
How many politicians display those qualities? Some politicians may possess a few of them, but overall, those traits are rare in the political realm.
Speaking of leadership qualities, the poll found that Americans are tired of politicians who work for powerful special interests instead of standing up to them (90% agree, including 73% strongly agree). So much for honesty, integrity, caring, and transparency.
Standing up for what is right – even when it requires personal sacrifice and perhaps being unpopular – is a character trait rarely seen in politicians. Is that trait common among citizens? I have no way of measuring that, but I think it is something worth thinking about – and is a quality we all could benefit from nurturing within ourselves and our loved ones. Conformity can be detrimental to society. Often, the right thing to do and the hard thing to do are the same thing. When one person stands up and says “this is wrong” it empowers others to do the same.
Expecting politicians to compromise and stand up for what is right are honorable ideas, but political figures don’t have a very good track record in these areas. Perhaps the rest of us could adhere to those principles, though – we outnumber the political elite, don’t we?
Is there anything we can do to prevent civil war?
I don’t like to write about problems without offering some ideas for prevention and solutions, but this is a very complex issue. All I can really do is ask people to be more mindful of how they respond to the media and politicians. Ask yourself if what you are reading or hearing is true. Is it based in fact? Or is it exaggeration (or outright lies)? It sure seems like some media outlets, talking heads, and politicians are intentionally trying to instigate division and unrest. Don’t fall for it. In these challenging times, it can be difficult to discern fact from fiction. It is important (now more than ever) to fact-check as much as possible. I see people sharing divisive content on social media that is obviously not based in fact – and sometimes, even satire is shared and discussed as if it were factual information!
Why do people share information that is not based on truth? There are several reasons, but cognitive biases, which are errors in thinking that affect the decisions and judgments we make, play a huge role.
Several years ago, I wrote a series of articles about cognitive biases. In one of those articles, I discussed a psychological trap called confirmation bias, which we all are susceptible to – whether we want to admit it or not:
One of the many cognitive biases that afflict humans, confirmation bias refers to our tendency to search for and favor information that confirms our beliefs while simultaneously ignoring or devaluing information that contradicts our beliefs.
This phenomenon is also called confirmatory bias or myside bias. (source)
In politics, confirmation bias explains, for example, why people with right-wing views read and view right-wing media and why people with left-wing views read and view left-wing media. In general, people both:
- Want to be exposed to information and opinions that confirm what they already believe.
- Have a desire to ignore, or not be exposed to, information or opinions that challenge what they already believe.
Confirmation bias permeates political discussions. It is so pervasive that it largely goes unnoticed. We are used to it. It explains why political debates usually end in gridlock:
Think about it: Have you noticed that people don’t want to hear anything negative about a candidate they’ve chosen to support? In many cases, it doesn’t matter what the facts are. Followers will resort to mental gymnastics – complete with cognitive flips and contortions – to justify continued support for their candidate.
In fact, when our deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, we may experience the “backfire effect.”
Coined by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, the term backfire effect describes how some individuals, when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs, come to hold their original position even more strongly.
The more ideological and the more emotion-based a belief is, the more likely it is that contrary evidence will be ineffective.
Confirmation bias has become even more prevalent because just about any belief can be “supported” with information found online.
Collecting evidence doesn’t always resolve confirmation bias: even when two individuals have the same information, the way they interpret it can be biased. (source)
In You Can’t Handle the Truth: How Confirmation Bias Distorts Your Opinions, I listed techniques that may help us avoid letting biases infiltrate our decision-making and belief systems:
- Be open to new information and other perspectives. Don’t be afraid to test or revise your beliefs.
- Even if you consider yourself an expert on a topic, approach new information as a beginner would.
- Ask someone you trust to play devil’s advocate. Ask them to challenge your assumptions.
- Don’t let a limited amount of past experience (particularly one negative experience) carry too much weight. Be sure to envision the future, not just replay the past.
- Remind yourself that your intuition is lazy (designed to make predictions quickly, but not always accurately) and does not want to be challenged. Seek and fully evaluate other alternatives before making decisions.
- When you believe something strongly, but don’t have recent and compelling evidence to support that belief, look for more information.
- Check your ego. If you can’t stand to be wrong, you’re going to continue to fall victim to biases. Learn to value truth rather than the need to be right.
- Look for disagreement. If you’re right, then disagreement will help highlight this and if you’re wrong – it will help you identify why.
- Ask insightful, open-ended questions. Direct them to people who are not afraid to be honest with you. Be quiet and listen to what they say.
- Examine conflicting data. Discuss it with people who disagree with you and evaluate the evidence they present.
- Consider all the viewpoints that you can find – not just the ones that support your current beliefs or ideas.
Cognitive dissonance is another bias that can distort acceptance of reality – and can prevent civil discourse. As I explained in A Tale of Grapes, Politics, Cults, and Aliens: Why People Cling to False Beliefs,
Cognitive dissonance refers to the mental stress or discomfort experienced when we hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, perform an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or are confronted by new information that conflicts with our existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
It is human nature to dislike being wrong. When we make a mistake, it is hard to admit it.
We resort to mental gymnastics to avoid accepting that our logic – or our belief system itself – is flawed. Lying, denying, and rationalizing are among the tactics we employ to dance around the truth and avoid the discomfort that contradiction creates. We avoid or toss aside information that isn’t consistent with our current beliefs. Emotions trump logic and evidence. Once our minds are made up, it is very difficult to change them.
This is cognitive dissonance. (source)
By looking at our thoughts and actions critically, objectively, and dispassionately, we can avoid making mistakes and be open to changing our minds as new information comes in. We can break the cycle of lying, denying, and rationalizing – if we remain vigilant and open-minded. And, we can engage in civil and productive discussions with those we disagree with – and perhaps create a more peaceful society.
In the conclusion of Uncivil Behavior Is Praised Now and This Is How Civil Wars Start, Daisy wrote,
If people could calmly discuss these differences in philosophy and look for common ground, they just might find some. Instead, people are supporting incivility and enmity.
When people can no longer find that common ground, they become enemies. Battles erupt that lead to wars. We don’t see fellow Americans and human beings. We see masked attackers and shouting aggressors. We see those who support those loudmouths who honestly do not speak for most of us. We need to remember that the folks out there acting badly are the extremes. Most of us are far more middle of the road in our beliefs but you don’t hear much about that from the media.
When uncivil behavior is seen as acceptable, when it is encouraged, it becomes the norm. Then to get attention, the actions must be more and more extreme.
Uncivil actions are the flashpoints for civil wars and we are right on the edge.
Heeding those words of wisdom seems like a smart thing to do.
By the way, I do not deny that there are people who are dangerous and should be treated as such. Yes, there are real issues that are worthy of attention and action (aggressors, thieves, violent people, and the like), but I believe those are more the exception than the norm. Remember, the news usually focuses on the worst – that is what gets ratings, unfortunately.
I’d like to believe that most people are still inherently good. Even those who harbor bad ideas may have good underlying intentions. Asking questions and engaging in calm, constructive conversations might help us retain a bit of peace and avoid civil war.
What do you think?
Is the United States heading for civil war? Are you mentally and physically prepared for such an event? Do you think we – the people – can do things to prevent civil war (or at least reduce its impact)? Please share your thoughts in the comments – and oh – please do so in a civil manner. *wink*
About the Author
Dagny Taggart is the pseudonym of an experienced journalist who needs to maintain anonymity to keep her job in the public eye. Dagny is non-partisan and aims to expose the half-truths, misrepresentations, and blatant lies of the MSM.