Members of the far-right group Proud Boys clashing with counter protesters in Washington, D.C., December 2020
Members of the far-right group Proud Boys clashing with counter protesters in Washington, D.C., December 2020    
Erin Scott / TPX Images of the Day / Reuters

This fall, Americans chose Joe Biden as their new president, and many people breathed a sigh of relief. But doing so may be premature. Americans have a new president but not a new country. The United States remains sharply divided: more than 74 million people—47 percent of the electorate—voted to reelect President Donald Trump. As of this writing, Trump has not conceded, claiming that the election was rigged or fraudulent. Even though courts have found these claims to be without merit, more than a third of all voters and 70 to 80 percent of those who voted for Trump agree with the president’s narrative. His refusal to accept the legitimacy of the election will undermine Biden as he seeks to consolidate the support needed to govern successfully.   

Why is the United States so divided? Until Americans and their leaders address this question, liberal democracy will remain under threat and the country will see its soft power diminished—even as international threats and authoritarian or populist governments elsewhere grow.   

The failure of Trump’s base to accept his defeat is the latest manifestation of a new identity politics driven by both culture and economics. The United States’ two political parties are sorting into distinctive groups based on who they are rather than on their policy preferences. Republicans tend to be religious, rural, native-born, older, male, and less educated. They are overwhelmingly white and working class. Democrats are just the opposite. The Republican base may be shrinking as the population ages and people of color gradually become the majority, but U.S. political institutions, from the Electoral College to the Senate, favor Republicans’ rural and small-state base.

Because partisan sorting is no longer primarily about one’s policy views but instead about one’s deepest values or identity, the “other party” is no longer just the opposition but the enemy; and politics is no longer about finding compromises that can address common problems but about winning a war for one’s own side.

An Identity Crisis

Many American voters today are motivated less by economic self-interest and policy preferences than by cultural values that express the character of the society in which they want to live and the people they believe they are. Issues such as racism, abortion, crime, and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic were especially salient during this election, according to early exit polls, and the vote split by income was smaller than that on cultural issues. Moreover, politics is now close to a religion—or is intertwined with religion. About half of Republicans believe that God chose Trump to save the country from liberalism. This new form of tribalism is often irrational and emotionally driven. As the journalist Ezra Klein puts it in his book, Why We’re Polarized, “An identity, once adopted, is harder to change than an opinion. An identity that binds you into a community you care about is costly and painful to abandon, and the mind will go to great lengths to avoid abandoning it.”

How, then, did the United States sort itself into communities that feel themselves to be so distinct and mutually hostile? The story cannot be told without reference to the country’s loss of trust in the mainstream media and fact-based discourse. Social media and cable television have produced a torrent of misinformation and conspiracy theories that allow people to craft their information diets to confirm their prior views.

Republicans naturally gravitate to watching Fox News. But does Fox News cause more people to vote Republican? The answer is yes. A striking study by several scholars has found that even after adjusting for the self-selection of the Fox News audience, the “Fox News effect” is easily large enough to swing an election. Should dark money or rising concentration in cable news programming further enhance this influence, control of the media could come to determine elections. Already the evidence suggests that the news media are largely responsible for the increasing polarization of the public.  

Politics is no longer about finding compromises that can address common problems.

The political and cultural divisions that the media both exploit and create did not begin with Trump or even Fox News. Rather, they arose in part from the deeply entwined politics of race, class, and immigration in the United States. Trump benefited from and later exacerbated the racial resentments of white, working-class communities suffering from serious job loss and festering social ills. Long before the 2016 election, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild found that white working-class respondents in Louisiana resented immigrants and minorities, whom they perceived to be “cutting in line” for jobs or other privileges. In 2016, most Republicans (overwhelmingly white) agreed with the following statement: “People like me are asked to make too many sacrifices that benefit people of another race.”

After publishing a book on this group in 2018, I conducted a listening tour with the working class that made me realize that Trump’s appeal derived in large part from his willingness to thumb his nose at elites. For all his wealth, Trump was never polished, and he was certainly not politically correct. Many who voted for him were racist and misogynistic, but perhaps less out of antipathy for particular Black people or women than because they believed that these groups and their liberal advocates were asking for special privileges not available to them. The residents of economically declining areas wanted jobs, not handouts. They thought government was corrupt or a joke. Even the women favored traditional gender roles and grieved the loss of the kinds of jobs that used to provide men with dignity and sufficient income to support a family.

Each turn of the hostility dial, on either the cultural right or left, creates a backlash on the other side. And so Trump and his ilk have catalyzed a reaction on the left—one that has sharply increased the proportion of Americans who believe that discrimination by race or gender is a major problem. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements are but two manifestations of this reaction. The shift is hard to explain based on a change in people’s objective circumstances: formerly marginalized groups, such as Black people, women, and the LGBTQ community, have made significant progress in recent decades. The national discourse, however, has become angrier and more intolerant. This dynamic of escalation and counterescalation can easily slip out of control.  

The tilt toward nationalism and nativism—not only in the United States, as it happens, but in other advanced countries as well—is geographically rooted in the small towns and rural areas hit hardest by deindustrialization. The loss of jobs, stagnant wages, and the attendant effects on the social fabric have clearly played a role. That said, purely economic analyses fail to capture the whole story. One cannot explain in purely economic terms the politicization of mask wearing, the growing concern that one’s child might marry someone from the opposing party, yawning partisan gaps in attitudes about race, or the strong support for Trump from the evangelical community. As the political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck put it, “These growing divisions between the Democratic and Republican Parties threaten to make political conflict less about what government should do and more about what it means to be an American. . . . This is the American identity crisis, and it is getting worse.”

Finding Common Cause

U.S. divisions will be hard to repair. In my book The Forgotten Americans, I proposed a comprehensive agenda to address the economic divide. It focused on the dignity of work and called for greater investment in building skills, creating jobs, and raising wages and benefits. I suggested offering the private sector tax incentives to train and share profits with workers. I now believe that, in addition, the United States may need to adopt a more explicit industrial policy alongside place-based strategies to revive small towns and rural communities. I also believe the cultural underpinnings of American divisions are more important than I earlier understood. To address them, the country will need more than an economic agenda: it will need new efforts to reestablish respect for the facts and to cultivate appreciation for one another across political and social tribes.  

Creating a stronger respect for the facts will require more education in media literacy, perhaps robust financing of a public broadcasting system, and the regulation of social media as a public utility to limit the spread of misinformation. However, the pandemic has shown that facts won’t always carry the day if they conflict with beliefs that strengthen bonds with valued family and friends. Messages about wearing masks from respected authorities have permeated the media and still many people do not comply. Vaccination against measles, the flu, or the novel coronavirus has been shown to be both safe and highly effective, yet large and growing portions of the population are unwilling to be vaccinated. Correcting conspiracy theories with facts often just leads adherents to double down. For these reasons, addressing the divisions in U.S. society will require improving intergroup relationships as much as it will require setting the record straight. Put most simply, different groups of Americans need to get to know one another better.

Why is intergroup contact so important? In a famous experiment from the 1950s, psychologists found that when a group of boys were randomly assigned to two teams and then isolated from each other, hostility between the two groups escalated to a perilous level. Conversely, when people from an in-group spend time with those from an out-group, dislike or mistrust declines. As the social psychologists Thomas F. Pettigrew and Linda R. Tropp found in their landmark survey based on 515 empirical studies, prejudice and distrust are greatly reduced when groups get to know one another. Military service is the classic example: even soldiers with little in common form strong bonds of loyalty and friendship with one another after fighting together on the battlefield. Similarly, communities with few immigrants are the most vulnerable to anti-immigrant attitudes, such as those that gave rise to Trump in the United States and to Brexit in the United Kingdom. The less one knows “the other,” the more likely one is to stereotype.

Different groups of Americans need to get to know one another better.

National service offers one promising way to enhance intergroup contact and strengthen bonds among Americans. Shared work toward common goals can help Americans build bridges instead of walls, thereby limiting tribalism and social division. The federal government should ask all young Americans to give a year of service, whether military or civilian, to their country. In return, they would get a modest stipend and two years of free college or postsecondary training. Richard Reeves and I call this proposal “scholarships for service.” Those who served would be reminded that being an American involves both rights and responsibilities. I have also proposed an American exchange program that would encourage families to host a young person from another community during their year of service.

Although Americans need to get to know their compatriots whose politics, race, gender, or other characteristics are different from their own, realism is also in order. The United States is very large and diverse, and people naturally care most about those from their own groups or communities. And yet most policymaking occurs in faraway Washington, within a federal government that is highly distrusted. The proportion of adults who say they trust the federal government to do what’s right is now down to about 17 percent. Confidence in a great many institutions has waned—but in none so much as the U.S. Congress. That distrust is hardly surprising. Political gridlock has stymied the legislature, leaving innumerable problems unaddressed—particularly the needs of those living in the heartland who have lost their jobs and their sense of dignity.

Even as Americans have lost confidence in their government, they have grown more alienated from their immediate communities. They participate less frequently than they used to in community and religious organizations. Their families are weaker, and they place little trust in other people. These trends, in turn, are associated with support for populism: of the ten counties that the Joint Economic Committee ranked lowest for social capital, or the networks of relationships that sustain community, Trump won eight. When people’s close ties weaken and their economic prospects dim, they search for something to fill the void. As Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, writes, “Lacking meaningful attachments, people are finding a perverse bond in at least sharing a common enemy.”

With Americans in dire need of a stronger sense of connection and purpose, and with a divided government in Washington for the foreseeable future, the time has come to return more decision-making to the local level—for Americans to take matters, almost literally, into their own hands. Some policies, of course, can be made only at the federal level; national defense and foreign affairs are the classic examples, with a social insurance system not far behind. But many other government responsibilities—such as education, job training, housing, transportation, and community development—might better be left to state and local governments and nonprofit organizations. Local governance would help American communities rebuild the relationships of trust that provide a sense of belonging and reinforce social norms, such as being honest, cooperative, and respectful of others.

Shared work toward common goals can help Americans build bridges instead of walls.

The time has come to consider eliminating many federal programs, especially those that are small and overly prescriptive, and replace them with a major investment in those same general activities at the state and local levels, tailored to local needs and preferences. The federal government can pay for these through the kind of general revenue sharing that existed between 1972 and 1986—a system that also reduced place-based inequalities by tilting dollars to poorer states and communities. Washington could simultaneously strengthen nongovernmental organizations by liberalizing the tax treatment of charitable giving.

The cities and towns that function best, the writers Deborah and James Fallows found when they traveled the country from 2012 to 2017, are those that bring people together to work on practical problems, undistracted by partisan politics. Such municipalities have strong local leadership and often rely on public-private partnerships to get things done. Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase “habits of the heart” to describe the cooperation he found in the small groups that he believed were the wellsprings of democratic governance. Such habits require people to work together where they can see and know one another, face-to-face.

Joe Biden has a monumental task ahead of him in keeping his promise to be the president of all Americans. Wisely, the president-elect has eschewed pleas from the far left to escalate the culture war. Rather, he speaks empathetically to blue-collar workers, to older and more culturally traditional voters, and to suburban women who fear street violence and radical change. He has stated that he will not defund the police, socialize health care, or raise taxes on the middle class. He very clearly wants to unify the country. Doing so may be one of the most difficult—and essential—jobs a U.S. president has ever had to accomplish. He can begin by speaking honestly, by reaching out to those left behind regardless of their politics, by lifting up local efforts and local leaders, and by challenging all of us to be more respectful of those with whom we disagree. Restoring the soul of America requires no less.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ISABEL SAWHILL is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation.
  • More By Isabel Sawhill