Republicans and Democrats Share Core Values but Still Distrust Each Other

Americans on the left and right have much more in common than they might think — according to their strong misgivings of each other.

A survey released Wednesday found when asked about core values, including personal responsibility, fairness, and compassion, around nine in 10 Republicans and Democrats agreed they were extremely or very important. Yet only around a third of either group said they believed the same was true for the opposite party.

The results of the poll, which NORC conducted at the University of Chicago along with the nonprofit group Starts With Us, reveal a simple truth at the source of the polarization that has a firm grip on U.S. politics: While most Americans agree on the fundamental principles underlying American democracy, do not continue to recognize that the other party also holds those values.

“This is a hidden opportunity for Americans to reestablish a sense of shared values,” said the chief executive at Starts With Us, Tom Fishman, a nonpartisan organization that works to bridge political polarization. Americans from both political parties need to understand that they share common values, said Fishman, and recognize there are misconceptions about the opposing party.

Americans have a long history of quarrelsome politics dating to before the Boston Tea Party. However, with the huge exception of the Civil War, a sense of unity has kept the forces of conflict at bay.

Experts who study trust and partisanship say that while a limited amount of polarization is natural, it can become a problem when one party no longer views the other as legitimate but as an enemy or when political parties use it.

Various factors are cited as possible causes for increased political division

Several factors are cited as possible causes for increased division, including the fragmentation and decline of legitimate news sources. These social media platforms spread misinformation while often sorting users into categories where they seldom encounter opposing viewpoints and politicians who stoke distrust.

The loss of unity is tied to burgeoning distrust in the media, science, public health, and government, while political anger has sometimes boiled over into violence or hate speech.

“When you get worried is when polarization turns into dehumanization — a sense that the other is somehow less than human, or evil, or unable to share your decent human values,” said an executive of Common Ground USA, a group that works to resolve conflict by building trust among Americans, Nealin Parker. “That should be concerning to anybody because those are the necessary psychological steps to doing harm to each other.”

Respondents were asked in the survey to rate the importance of six principles: fair enforcement of the law, compassion, respect across differences, personal responsibility, government accountability, representative government, and learning from the past. In each case, around 90% of both Republicans and Democrats rated these values as extremely or very important.

When asked if members of the opposing party thought the values of the opposing party were extremely or very important, however, around two-thirds of respondents said no.

For example, while 91% of Republicans said they believe it is extremely or very important that citizens should learn from the past to improve the country, only around a third of Democrats said they thought that to be true of GOP voters. While only 31% of GOP respondents say Dems believe government accountability is extremely or very important, 90% of Democrat respondents say they do.

The findings reflect “affective polarization,” where disagreements are based on a lack of trust and animosity instead of a debate over policy or values. Julia Minson, a professor who studies collaboration and conflict at Harvard University’s Harvard Kennedy School, said recognizing common values is an excellent beginning to bridging divides in America.

Minson said too often, “We ascribe negative things to people we disagree with. We see them as an adversary that doesn’t want to be a partner. It’s very much about emotions and trust and largely divorced from actual differences.”

The nationwide survey was conducted May 11-15 among 1,003 adults using NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, designed to represent the U.S. population. The sampling error margin is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.