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Tumultuous politics leaves Americans alienated, suspicious of opposite party

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they’d be uncomfortable with someone from the opposite party watching their homes while they were away.

WASHINGTON — The past few years of American politics have been divisive and, at times, malicious, from name-calling on social media to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. And judging from one recent poll, all those hits to the nation’s body politic have left big bruises.

The poll, from the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, finds a nation riven by extreme partisanship and alienation and full of citizens who are looking at one another and the larger system with doubt and distrust. You can see the impacts throughout the electorate using a wide range of measures.

Let’s start with one of the most basic points, what one looks for in a new acquaintance. The poll found that a potential new friend’s political leanings are a bigger factor than others, even some dynamics that traditionally have been considered divisive.

In the survey, 52 percent said someone’s “views on politics” were somewhat important or very important when it comes to making new friends. That was the highest “important” percentage of any of the options given in the survey.

“Views of politics” were ranked as more important than “taste in music and entertainment,” at 48 percent, and higher than “religion,” at 30 percent. The numbers for political views were also higher than those for “educational background” (33 percent) and “ethnicity” (20 percent).

Beyond friendship, the poll also suggested that people's partisan affiliations affect the trust respondents have toward others to varying degrees on different issues.

Politics didn’t matter as much on some points. For instance, it seems that someone’s political party isn’t a big factor when it comes to choosing a person to “watch your house when you’re away.” Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they’d be comfortable with someone from the opposite party doing that.

But the numbers dropped a bit when the task was “teaching your kids in school” — 61 percent said they trust someone from the opposite party with that task. And when the question turned to issues more directly related to democracy, the figures fell further. Only 54 percent said they would trust someone from the other party with “counting votes in your precinct.”

The numbers also showed the challenges of trying to create a political dialogue between Democrats and Republicans. Those surveyed said they go into most political conversations expecting people from the other party to be untruthful.

When Republicans were asked about Democrats and their honesty, 70 percent said they believe “Democrats are generally untruthful and pushing disinformation.” That’s a pretty big lack of basic trust.

But the other side holds astoundingly similar views. When Democrats were asked about Republicans, 69 percent said they “are generally untruthful and pushing disinformation.”

All of that partisan mistrust takes a toll. After all, American politics is essentially a two-party system. If members of those parties don’t think they can be friends, aren’t sure whether they can trust those on the other side to count votes fairly and think the other side is basically lying when their lips are moving, what does that mean for the larger American experiment?

The survey doesn’t offer a lot of hopeful answers.

More than half of those surveyed, 56 percent, say the government is “corrupt and rigged against everyday people.” Nearly half of those surveyed, 49 percent, say they feel “more and more like a stranger” in their own country. And, perhaps more troubling, more than a quarter, 28 percent, said that “it may be necessary at some point soon to take up arms against the government.”

To be fair, crosstabs in the poll show that that 28 percent is largely being driven by Republicans, particularly “strong Republicans,” but remember, it’s the Democrats who are in control of the executive and legislative branches of government — at least for now. The support for that idea might look different if control in Washington flips.

And regardless of which group is driving the number, there is a lot to be concerned about. It’s bad enough that “taking up arms against the government” has become a serious answer among those who feel left behind politically. But it may be even more troubling that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of ways to change that view. Lack of opposite-party friends and cross-partisan dialogue don’t seem to be likely here.

The divides are apparent, and how to find a way to close them isn’t.