Partisan identification is now a bigger wedge between Americans than race, gender, religion or level of education. There is a sense that partisan affiliation reflects more than just a voting preference; rather, it says something about your character.
Ken Storey was in a pique, the kind that often seizes and overwhelms the better judgment of people who follow politics closely these days.
Hurricane Harvey was about to douse Texas with deadly flooding, and Storey had identified the culprit: Republicans. “I don’t believe in instant Karma but this kind of feels like it for Texas,” he tapped out on Twitter, between bites of a taco over lunch. “Hopefully this will make them realize the GOP doesn’t care about them.”
Those 145 characters, which soon bounced around among conservative activists online and became the subject of several Fox News segments, would cost him his job as an adjunct sociology professor at the University of Tampa, incite death threats, strain his relationship with his parents and, nearly a year later, leave him living on two part-time jobs that pay less than a third of what he used to earn. His rent, car payments and electric bills are all past due, he said in a recent interview.
“When you Google my name, that’s what comes up,” Storey said, explaining that he believes the Twitter episode has hurt him as he struggles to find new work. “I thought it would blow over.”
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While his case and the resulting backlash were extreme, Storey, 34, instigated the kind of zero-sum political confrontation that breaks out every day all across the country as politics seeps into and disrupts everyday life. To a degree that is unique to this period and this president, disputes over politics have divided Americans’ homes, strained marriages, ruined friendships and invaded the workplace.
A couple in Georgia, married two decades, won’t speak when the husband leaves his unwashed mug supporting President Donald Trump in the sink; his wife refuses to touch it. A teenager eating at a Texas fast-food restaurant had his “Make America Great Again” hat ripped off his head and a drink thrown in his face. A mother in New England sought the help of professional conflict mediators during the holidays because her two daughters — one who was pro-Trump, the other anti-Trump — had stopped speaking to each other.
These conflicts are even weighing on the relationships of White House staff. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, and her husband, George, a prominent attorney, have bickered publicly over her unflinching support of Trump.
High tension, raw emotion and occasional violence have always been a feature of U.S. democracy — in times of war and peace, through presidential impeachments and mass protest movements. But interviews with voters across the country, along with an analysis of recent research by political scientists who specialize in partisan division, suggest that politics is changing how Americans think and behave in new and unsettling ways.
Experts point to several reasons. The volume and sheer ubiquity of information about politics, combined with Americans’ ability to instantaneously render public judgment on one another’s views, has made the political conversation much noisier. And for the first time, the country is led by someone who inflames that conversation on a nearly daily basis, taunting his adversaries on Twitter and quickly triggering tens of thousands of responses.
“There is a constant obsession with the ups and downs, the tweets, who we’re supposed to be mad at — and that is different,” said historian Jon Meacham, who has written a new book, “The Soul of America,” on how the country endured its most traumatic moments, from the Civil War to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to Vietnam. “Trump has raised the metabolism of division to remarkable levels.”
Partisan identification is now a bigger wedge between Americans than race, gender, religion or level of education. The Pew Research Center, which for two decades has tracked demographic and partisan differences on issues like national security, immigration and the government’s role in helping the disadvantaged, found last year for the first time that the gap between Republicans and Democrats dwarfed gaps between people of different races, genders, religions and education levels.
There is a sense, especially among Democrats who recoil at Trump’s style of politics, that partisan affiliation reflects more than just a voting preference. Rather, it says something about your character. And where you come down on Trump is increasingly a decisive factor in whether or not someone wants to associate with you.
Sixty percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats interviewed by Pew in a separate survey in March said that people who feel differently than they do about how Trump is handling his job probably do not share their values and goals.
Maryann Meador, 65, of Saint Marys, Georgia, said that she and her husband of 23 years always had mild disagreements over politics. She attributed this to their backgrounds: He is from Texas and collects guns; she was born in Brooklyn and got active in local Democratic politics. But something about Trump’s election, she said, sharpened their differences. “The Bushes were hard years,” she said. “But we really didn’t get into screaming matches about it.”
Now they have given up their tradition of watching the NBC Nightly News together every evening. She hides her laptop when he walks in the room because she doesn’t want him to see her reading something political that could spark a fight. When he drinks coffee from a cup with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan on it and leaves it on the counter, she is tempted to smash it. “But what would that accomplish?” she asked.
Pollster Frank Luntz, who has worked primarily for Republicans but says he has become increasingly disenchanted with his party and critical of Trump, recently commissioned a survey of 96 questions on the topic of political dialogue and division. In 1,000 interviews, he said, he found one answer especially troubling: Nearly a third said they had stopped talking to a friend or a family member because of disagreements over politics and the 2016 election.
“This is very different,” Luntz said in an interview. “With Obama, people hated him or people loved him. But you weren’t evil for how you felt. You might be accused of being a racist or a socialist. It still wasn’t the same.”
Strategists like Luntz, who has been traveling the country conducting focus groups to better understand the conflicts, and research organizations like Pew are part of an emerging political industry devoted to division. The National Institute for Civil Discourse, which provides lawmakers, businesses and communities with strategies to solve disagreements, was founded in the aftermath of the 2011 assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman. Its executive director, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, said that during the 2012 presidential election, “We got not a single message from anybody in the country about incivility in the campaign process.”
“Then 2016 rolls around,” she said.
Among the requests for conflict mitigation she has received since: rabbis and pastors whose congregations are at each other’s throats; Fortune 500 companies where productivity is down because employees bicker over politics; and a mother in New England who feared her family’s holiday would be ruined because her two daughters who were returning from college had not spoken to each other since the 2016 election.
“This is now deep in our homes, deep in our neighborhoods, deep in our places of worship and deep in our workplaces,” Lukensmeyer said. “It really is a virus.”
The acrimony in politics has become so pervasive that 91 percent of voters said it was a serious problem in a Quinnipiac University poll released last month. There was strong consensus about who was at fault: 47 percent said they blame Trump more; 37 percent said Democrats.