The narrative of a growing cultural divide, while partly true, conceals a more nuanced picture
If you believe the pundits, Americans are divided as never before. Red states versus blue. Black versus white. Men versus women. Young against the old. This barely contained intramural warfare has created dysfunctional politics and is ripping apart the social fabric.
Not so fast. Southern Methodist University’s Klaus Desmet and UCLA Anderson’s Romain Wacziarg suggest in a working paper that the picture is a lot more complicated — and not nearly so dire.
Using nearly 45 years of survey data, the researchers conclude that, yes, there’s a divide over cultural values in the U.S. and that the split has generally grown wider over the last two decades. But the rift still isn’t as great as it was in the early 1970s and, despite wide disagreements over some cultural values, most occur within social groups, not between them. What’s more, many of the previous cultural splits — between the young and the old, for instance — have narrowed significantly during the period. “The data doesn’t support a sweeping conclusion that there are deepening cultural divides,” the authors write.
So why do commentators think the cultural gulf is wide, and growing? Along some lines, we are more polarized: for instance, between political identities and between religions, where differences are large. The political and religious divides began widening in the late 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s. These divides attract a lot of media attention. Rifts have also widened along income, education and racial lines. We are also more divided in terms of attitudes toward specific social debates, such as those around gun laws and confidence in some civic institutions.
“Many commentators have focused on the cultural divide across political lines,” the authors write, “ignoring trends across other divides and ignoring heterogeneity across memes” (the term the paper uses to describe cultural values, attitudes and traits).
The study is based on the General Social Survey, which measures public attitudes and opinions on a variety of issues. Reviewing survey data from the years between 1972 and 2016, the authors used 76 questions (asked in the survey) to identify views on religious beliefs and practices, public-policy preferences, moral values and tolerance for other lifestyles. The survey, conducted by the NORC (formerly National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago, includes questions on people’s confidence in large corporations, opinions on sex before marriage, views of the criminal justice system and other sociological and attitudinal topics.
Desmet and Wacziarg’s paper looks at the cultural divide in two ways. First, it considers overall disagreement on a variety of policy and cultural issues. How big is the divide among all survey respondents over gay marriage? prayer in schools? the death penalty?
Second, it explores how different groups view those issues. The authors divide their sample into 11 “identity cleavages” — age, educational attainment, race, ethnicity, family income, gender, political-party identification, region, urbanicity, religion and work status — and then calculate how much a person’s values depend on the group he or she identifies with. How predictive is someone’s age, gender or political affiliation in terms of that person’s attitudes about crime or confidence in big business?