Sun. Aug 14th, 2022
President Joe Biden meets with staff before a visit to a local school to discuss safely returning to class and the education investments in his economic agenda, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in the Oval Office. (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)

President Joe Biden meets with staff before a visit to a local school to discuss safely returning to class and the education investments in his economic agenda, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021, in the Oval Office. (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Politics.]

By Philip Wegmann
Real Clear Politics

Somewhere in the Middle East, a soldier dressed for battle pauses to examine the bandaged elbow of a young girl, while two older brothers look over her shoulder with obvious interest and concern as the American GI offers first aid. It would be an iconic image – that is, if photos of the U.S. military providing humanitarian assistance had not become commonplace during two decades of conflict.

And yet, even after military Good Samaritans became ordinary features of otherwise unpopular foreign wars, who could disagree that a combat medic attending to an injured child doesn’t reflect the goodness of the United States? According to new polling by RealClear Opinion Research, the answer is very few.

Across the ideological spectrum from the left to the right, from Democrats to Republicans, from the most “woke” to the most “MAGA” of voters, all seem to agree that the comforting image, more or less, illustrates what is right about America. After that, well, they disagree on just about everything else.

The idea that America can be split neatly in half has been cast aside as myopic, and pollsters who still survey divisions in the national landscape as a simple chasm between Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right risk missing a diverse and varied political forest for the partisan trees.

Hence the project undertaken in 2018 under the supervision of John Della Volpe, director of polling for RealClear Opinion Research. Rather than the old right-vs-left binary, Della Volpe and his team identified distinct categories that better capture the varied perspectives of U.S. voters.

These are the so-called “Five Tribes” of American Voters: Mainline GOP and their similar but distinct MAGA counterparts; the Institutionalist Democrats and the Woke Democrats; and finally the Democratic-Leaning Multiculturalists. (A thorough definition of each camp can be found here.)

Nearly four years later, a span that included both a presidential election and a once-in-a-century pandemic, those divisions have only deepened, explained Jonathan Chavez, chief analytics officer for RealClear Opinion Research, “as disruptions to daily lives have caused many to re-examine some of their most closely held values.”

“What I’m most struck by from this survey is that divisions are not just partisan,” Chavez added. “Within both parties, we see fundamental disagreements about America, its history, and its future.”

For instance, show a voter in the MAGA camp a picture of Donald Trump, and 64% will respond to the image of the former president by saying that he “illustrates what is right with America.” Only 46% of the Mainline GOP, the tribe that nearly doubled in size since the last survey, responded the same way to that presidential portrait.

Both camps on the right share a similar distaste for President Biden, with 84% MAGA and 82% Mainline GOP responding to his likeness negatively. This means that the collective right is more passionately opposed to the current leader of the opposition than they are aligned with the former president. And as Trump waits in the wings for a potential 2024 comeback, the right remains divided on perhaps his greatest accomplishment: the COVID-19 vaccine that was developed in record time.

When researchers showed a photo of an older man receiving a vaccine from a clinic, Mainline GOPers thought the image of inoculation reflected what is right with America by a 16-point margin (36% to 20%). Members of the MAGA sect were less convinced with just 32% and 27% responding the same way, a net margin three times less.

More than 52 million doses of that vaccine have been administered, the lion’s share coming during the Biden administration. Unsurprisingly, this and other accomplishments have earned the president the admiration of the Institutionalist Democrats. The majority of that camp (65%) responded to his image by saying he represents what is right with America. That sentiment wanes, however, farther to the left.

The Multiculturalist camp was roughly split, with 28% saying Biden represented what is right and 24% saying he is what is wrong with the country. Among the Woke, meanwhile, just 31% said the current president is indicative of what America gets right, while 13% responded that Biden reflected what is wrong.

Perhaps the ambivalence isn’t unusual, given that Biden was perceived by the collective left as a unity candidate rather than a transformational one. The inverse of the two groups on the right, those three camps are overwhelmingly more opposed to Trump than they are supportive of Biden. The former president represents what is wrong with America according to majorities of Democratic-Leaning Multiculturalists (51%), Institutionalist Democrats (86%), and Woke Democrats (91%).

If images of politicians elicit deeply felt attachment and resentment, it is no surprise that cultural images do the same. Here the divide is just as stark – though perhaps more startling – over the most mundane of images.

Show the MAGA and Mainline GOP sects a picture of a little white chapel, and the responses are overwhelmingly positive – 77% and 68% say that the church signifies what is right about the country. Smaller majorities of Multicultural and Institutional Democrats, 44% and 50%, report the same. The Woke, however, were inclined to say that church was a negative: 14% report that images of the church reflect what is right with America and 21% what is wrong.

A different cultural signifier filled the Woke crowd with optimism: An overwhelming 63% responded to an image of an all-gender restroom sign as an example of progress. Institutional Democrats were slightly more hesitant, though they approved of the gender-neutral facilities by a 16-point margin (38% to 22%). The multi-ethnic camp was evenly split, if not out of step with those other wings of the Democratic party. About a third, 32%, responded positively to inclusive bathrooms, while another 31% replied they were another sign of what was wrong in the country.

Already, politicians and their operatives are busy digging through these kinds of surveys ahead of the midterms and the looming presidential election. They will find few areas of overlap, if any, to unite the disparate tribes.

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Politics.]

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