Matthew Levendusky’s ‘Our Common Bonds’
The following is an excerpt from “Our Common Bonds: Using What Americans Share to Bridge the Partisan Divide” by Penn political scientist Matthew Levendusky (©2023 The University of Chicago Press).
On a blustery January day, just moments after being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America, Joe Biden delivered an address centered on “that most elusive of things in a democracy: unity.” This was perhaps a slightly odd choice, as the country seemed to be more divided than ever. Just two weeks before, supporters of former President Trump had stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to block the certification of Biden’s victory in the November 2020 election. January 6th marked only the second time in U.S. history that the Capitol had been breached, but the first time that American citizens—rather than foreign troops—had been the ones doing the ransacking. Even before that insurrection, few would have characterized the United States as unified: the country was seemingly torn asunder by divides over how to address the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic recession, as well as a centuries-overdue reckoning about the legacy of slavery and racism. Dissolution, not unity, seemed like a more appropriate topic for the moment.
Biden acknowledged that there were deep and significant challenges to be overcome. But he argued that to confront these challenges, we have to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” He acknowledged that this will be difficult, and that unity does not imply unanimity. But he argued that if we could come together as one, we could “heal a broken land” and “write an American story of hope, not fear, of unity, not division, of light, not darkness.”
Those stirring words, poetic as they were, likely seemed hopelessly naïve to most Americans. Biden himself acknowledged as much, saying that he knew his words sounded like “a foolish fantasy” to many. The public agreed with his assessment: in a poll by the Pew Research Center early in his term, of all of the issues polled, the public was the least confident in Biden’s ability to unify the country. This skepticism reflects the conventional wisdom about American politics: politicians in Washington, D.C., are hopelessly divided and cannot come together on almost any issue, and ordinary voters are little better. Indeed, not only do voters disagree with one another, they also fundamentally dislike and distrust one another. This animosity seemingly eviscerates any calls for unity among members of the public.
Public opinion data reinforce this bleak outlook. When asked about their feelings toward the other party, 79% of Democrats, and 83%of Republicans, described those feelings as negative, rather than neutral or positive. Nearly 8 in 10 say that they “fundamentally disagree about core American values” with those in the other party, and more than 70% think that those from the other party are “a clear and present danger to the American way of life.” Animosity and ill will between the parties have become the norm.