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Researchers asked people worldwide about divisiveness. Guess where U.S. ranked

Protesters against COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates demonstrate near the New Mexico state Capitol in Santa Fe.
Protesters against COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates demonstrate near the New Mexico state Capitol in Santa Fe in late August.
(Cedar Attanasio / Associated Press )

Perhaps the most unrealistic of President Biden’s campaign promises was his repeated suggestion that he could bridge the deep gulfs that divide American society.

As the anniversary of his election approaches, the U.S. is more split than ever. That’s mostly not Biden’s fault — the social trends that have pushed Americans apart for the last 20 years go far deeper than any president can reach. But it does clearly limit his effectiveness, as Biden has found with the roughly 1 in 4 Republicans who adamantly refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

The same social trends have affected other wealthy nations, but the U.S. stands out for the degree of divisiveness that afflicts it. When the nonpartisan Pew Research Center recently surveyed people in 17 countries in Europe, Asia and North America, Americans were the most likely to say their society was split along partisan, racial and ethnic lines. The U.S. also reported more religious division than almost any other country surveyed.

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The U.S. was also one of five countries in which more than half the public said their fellow citizens can’t agree on basic facts.

Polarization and conflict

A decade ago, it was commonplace to hear people say that while America’s politicians were polarized, its public was not. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the inability of American society to come together even in the face of a deadly virus largely ended that delusion: Our divided politics reflects a divided public.

In the U.S., “Republicans and Democrats seem to disagree about almost everything” with two exceptions, said Laura Silver, a senior researcher at Pew who helped lead the new study: Both say “there are strong political disagreements and people don’t agree on basic facts.”

And, she said, “there’s a growing sense that conflicts are increasing.”

Pew’s numbers bear that out: In 2012, fewer than half of Americans said they thought “very strong conflicts” existed between Democrats and Republicans. By 2020, that share had soared past 70%.

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have worsened divisions in the U.S. and in other rich countries.

On average, in the 17 countries Pew surveyed, about 60% of people say their countries are more divided than before the virus hit. In the U.S., 88% say so.

Overall, the level of political division that Americans report — 90% say they see strong or very strong conflicts between supporters of different political parties — is strikingly high. In the countries Pew surveyed, the average level of perceived strong political conflict was just 50%, with all but one at levels far below that of the U.S.; 90% of South Koreans also reported that their country had strong partisan conflict.

The international comparisons offer a clue about why those two countries, along with a few others, including France and Taiwan, report higher levels of political conflict: All have systems in which two major parties compete for power and have roughly equal levels of support.

They’re countries with “close elections and two dominant blocs,” Silver said.

Countries like Japan, in which one party dominates, reported significantly lower levels of conflict.

That meshes well with the experience of U.S. politics: Close elections generate high levels of political engagement and turnout, but also polarization and mistrust between the competing parties.

In the 1960s and 1970s — the heyday of the sort of bipartisan Senate compromise that Biden often seems to hanker for — election turnout dropped, and many people complained that there was little difference between the two parties.

By contrast, the last two presidential campaigns, which featured a stark contrast between the two parties and their nominees, generated the highest turnout in more than a century.

The U.S. is also in an era of closely divided power. Starting in 1994, when the Republicans gained a House majority for the first time in 40 years, control of the chamber has flipped four times. Odds are it will flip again after next year’s election. That’s a stretch of volatility not seen since the 1880s and 1890s.

High turnout, strong political engagement and close elections are not bad things. The opposite — political apathy that comes from both parties agreeing on most issues or one party always winning — isn’t healthy for a democracy.

What makes the U.S. truly stand out, however — and threatens its democratic future — is that its political conflict combines with high levels of ethnic, racial and religious conflict.

More often, countries experience just one or two of those. People in Taiwan, a country with little diversity, for example, reported high levels of political conflict in Pew’s survey, but low levels of ethnic conflict. Belgium, which has experienced violent clashes between French- and Flemish-speaking communities, reported high levels of ethnic conflict but ranked low on the other scales.

The U.S. ranks at or near the top on all categories, and its conflicts reinforce each other because our political, racial and religious divisions overlap.

That’s a recipe for what political scientists have labeled “negative partisanship” — political division driven by fear and anger directed at the opposing party.

A recent survey done for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics illustrated that: It found that just over half of Biden voters and almost 6 in 10 Trump voters said that they had come to view the leaders of the opposing party as “presenting a clear and present danger to American democracy.”

That’s the bad news — a large number of people who see politics in apocalyptic terms and view the opposite party not just as competition, but as a threat.

That affects the supporters of both parties, although the two aren’t equivalent in how they’ve responded. Biden, however unsuccessfully, has tried to build bridges; Trump has done everything he can do tear them down.

There’s also good news: The countries surveyed mostly report high — and growing — levels of social tolerance. Majorities in 15 of the 17 nations, all except Japan and Greece, say that having people of many different backgrounds, such as different ethnic or religious groups, makes their countries better places to live.

At the same time, majorities in each country also acknowledge that their nation has a problem with racial or ethnic discrimination.

As in the U.S., younger people, those with more education and those on the political left are more likely to express positive views about diversity.

Such positive feelings grew over the last four years in all of the countries, and in several, including the U.S., at least 8 in 10 people say their nations benefit from diversity.

That’s the tension in the current moment: Rising levels of division and mistrust on the one hand, growing tolerance for difference on the other. Which trend proves stronger will go a long way toward determining whether the U.S. and other wealthy nations remain vibrant democracies or fall victim to authoritarians.

Corruption charges roil California politics

Wednesday afternoon, California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta announced the indictment of a former top California labor union official and her husband, accusing Alma Hernández of grand theft, embezzlement and tax evasion, Taryn Luna reported.

Ordinarily, the indictment of a senior leader of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most powerful in the state, would have a good chance of topping the week’s political news. In this case, however, it wasn’t even the biggest news of the day.

That prize went to the federal indictment on bribery charges of L.A. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and a former dean at USC. The councilman has long been one of the most influential figures in Los Angeles politics. A former state Assembly member and then an L.A. County Supervisor, he was widely touted as a leading potential candidate for mayor until August, when he abruptly announced he would not run.

As Michael Finnegan, Harriet Ryan and Matt Hamilton wrote, the indictment accused Ridley-Thomas of conspiring with Marilyn Louise Flynn, who at the time was dean of USC’s School of Social Work, to steer county money to the university in return for admitting his son Sebastian into the graduate school with a full-tuition scholarship and a paid professorship.

The underlying facts were first disclosed in an L.A. Times investigation by Ryan and Hamilton of the university’s social work school and its fundraising practices.

Hamilton and Ryan teamed up for a fresh look at the pressure for money that brought together Flynn and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, a former state Assembly member, in what prosecutors allege led to a criminal partnership.

Mark Ridley-Thomas has asserted his innocence, but at City Hall, other elected officials are wrestling with the issue of whether he can continue with his city council duties while under indictment, David Zahniser, Julia Wick and Dakota Smith reported.

As Steve Lopez wrote, the indictment means Ridley-Thomas’ voice may now be muted on homelessness, an issue on which he has been a leading policymaker.

In Black communities in L.A., news of the indictment was met with a mix of cynicism and wariness and a current of disappointment, Donovan X. Ramsey wrote.

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Biden and the port

Biden announced expanded operations at the Port of Los Angeles as the White House tries to resolve the country’s supply chain problems, Chris Megerian and Don Lee reported.

As Lee and Megerian explained, what’s driving the urgency for Biden is the hope of heading off a supply chain mess for Christmas. Even with ports working overtime, however, it’s not clear that holiday-season disruptions will be avoidable.

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