The America That Isn’t Polarized

The deep divisions that do exist could still have serious consequences for democracy. Revolutions are typically staged by small slices of populations, and it takes even smaller ones to perpetrate political violence, like the mass shooting in El Paso last month.

And in the age of social media, it takes only a few to maul the many. “You can tell me that 70 percent of Americans don’t participate in the culture war, but it doesn’t really matter,” said Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at N.Y.U. “Events today are driven by small numbers that can shame and intimidate large numbers. Social media has changed the dynamic. Even if most Americans practice excellent fire safety habits, if a small minority is rewarded for throwing lit matches, we’re going to live in an age of arson.”

Even so, a singular focus on division risks misunderstanding American society.

CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

There are few places where Americans might have more reason to be engaged than Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, arguably the pivotal swing region of what could be the election’s most important battleground state. In 2016, Mr. Trump improved over Mitt Romney’s margin by a combined 24 points in Lackawanna County and neighboring Luzerne County. The two places had the second- and third-largest swings toward the president of any county with more than 100,000 voters. Mr. Trump’s net 55,000-vote surge here was enough to cover his 44,000-vote victory in Pennsylvania.

Yet in Lackawanna County last month, 12 of the 30 people interviewed described themselves as not engaged in politics at all. Mr. Ahmed says he occasionally sees news, like when a celebrity shares something on Instagram. Most recently it was “something about the Everglades being on fire.” But it fades quickly.

“You see it, then you go back to your own problems,” he said.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t vote. He went to the polls for Hillary Clinton in 2016, not because he liked her but because his grandmother and aunt pushed him to go.

Almost every measure of polarization suggests that a majority of the public has not succumbed to the growing animosity between the parties. According to Pew, the share of Americans on the more rigid, ideological edges of the electorate was about 26 percent in 2017.

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