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Americans' shared illusions on unity and disunity: We have similar long-term priorities

Americans' shared illusions on unity and disunity: We have similar long-term priorities
© Greg Nash

More than eight in 10 Americans personally say the country is more divided than united. Similar polling numbers show most other Americans agree with them. Are these real disputes or confusion over what the other side thinks?

Research by the think tank Populace suggests it’s confusion. This creates collective illusions, or gaps between an individual’s personal opinions and that same individual’s perception of what others think. It leads to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE’s and Joe BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE’s voters misjudging each other.            

The Populace report on The American Aspiration Index interviewed 2,010 Americans from Jan 21-28, the first week of the Biden administration. It asked for views on the country’s future and included small group talks with voters from both sides. The main finding was that division comes from intense disagreement on a small number of issues, not disputes on many issues. 

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Trump and Biden voters agree on a greater number of high-level goals. Out of each group’s top 15 of 55 personally-held priorities for the country, Trump and Biden voters hold nine in common. The top personal priority for both groups is an overwhelming commitment to the belief that “People have individual rights.” And that’s the top priority they believe “most people” want to protect for future generations.

Both groups express a bipartisan sense of urgency on five policy goals: access to quality health care; safety in communities and neighborhoods; criminal justice reforms; help for the middle class; and modernized infrastructure. At least 50 percent of both groups say they’d be personally “upset” if America didn’t make significant progress on these issues over the next few years. Remarkably, this agreement holds across almost all races, genders, education levels and generations. 

In its research, Populace used a choice-based conjoint (CBC) survey to distinguish between an individual’s personal opinion and the person’s perceived opinion of what society thinks. It also simulates real-world tradeoffs for respondents, rather than directly asking what goals they hold. With CBC, a typical margin of error doesn’t apply. Root likelihood is used, with certainty scores of 85.3 percent for personal responses and 84.5 percent for perceived societal responses. 

No issue shows more partisan disagreement than immigration. For Trump voters, “severely restricts immigration” was third out of 55 most important personally-held national aspirations, versus 46th for Biden voters. Trump voters’ personal views also stressed that the country would “[have] secure national borders.” It was second in the top five personally-held national aspirations for them, versus 31st for Biden voters.

Two other differences stand out. Biden voters place a much higher personal priority on the importance of a “quality education” to the country’s future than do Trump voters, ranking it ninth versus 26th out of 55. The voter groups also have different attitudes on what should be expected of work, though both place it in the top 15 personal aspirations. Biden voters prioritize jobs and careers as a way to have material security (10th, versus 29th out of 55). Trump voters emphasize the intangible — i.e., “jobs they enjoy” (12th, versus 21st out of 55). 

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Finally, in combining some of the top 15 of 55 goals for the country’s future, both groups want equal treatment and opportunity, but not necessarily equal outcomes. The values ranked toward the top include that people “have individual rights” (first); “are treated equally, regardless of background, in all aspects of society” (sixth); “are able to go as far in life as their abilities and aspirations will take them” (12th); and “treat one another with respect” (14th). On the other hand, an America that “has very little income inequality” was 41st of 55. 

The bottom line: Biden and Trump voters hold collective illusions about each other. What’s mistaken for vast partisan, political disagreement instead is intense but narrow differences on a limited number of issues. There is a bipartisan center with a sense of urgency that expects progress to be made on at least five issues. And this should occur in a context that values equal treatment and opportunity, rather than equal results.

Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser to the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Program. From 1986 to 1993, he held several senior positions in the U.S. Department of Education, including assistant secretary for policy and planning. The Foundation provides general support to Populace but had no input  into its survey.