HomeBudget & Tax NewsAmerica's Growing Political Divide Undermines Tolerance, Rule of Law

America’s Growing Political Divide Undermines Tolerance, Rule of Law

Americans faced a crucial choice during this week’s presidential election—a choice that will remain regardless of who is ultimately declared the winner of the presidency. Perhaps more significant than the contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is whether we still believe in representative democracy. In a growing political divide, Americans increasingly see their political opponents as ignorant and evil.

Opinion polls mirror social media vitriol. An Axios poll found that about half of Democrats and Republicans described members of the other party as ignorant, with one in five labeling the others as evil.  Sixty one percent of Democrats described the GOP as “racist/bigoted/sexist.” Fair, thoughtful and kind polled in single digits with each group. About one-third of the Axios respondents, including half of the liberal Democrats, would be “disappointed” if a close family member married someone of a different political affiliation.

What we believe about others shapes our reaction to our differences. Do we respect or dismiss differences in food, sports, jobs, religion, or politics? Do we recognize others as deserving to pursue their life goals? This perspective affects our social interactions.

Judging others as inferior underlies prejudice and hatred. Humans have too frequently viewed those of other races, religions, ethnicity, or sexual orientation as inferior or deficient. America’s major divide today is seemingly political. Seeing others not as persons but exclusively as part of an “inferior” group makes conflict more likely.

Two elements of societal interaction further encourage conflict. The first is the anonymity of the group. Social scientists and psychologists have long noted that people are more likely to hurt others when part of a crowd.

The second factor is a lack of interaction with persons from the other group. If groups sort themselves, people never have encounters which might undermine prejudices. Desegregating the military, schools, and universities allowed mixing and helped Americans recognize our common humanity.

Many observers have noted America’s enormous political sorting over the past several decades. The sorting has been both physical and informational. Conservatives and liberals increasingly work at different jobs and live in different communities. They get news and opinion from different sources, with little constructive exchange between the viewpoints.

Both markets and democracy require toleration and acceptance. Activity in markets is exclusively voluntary; others can always refuse our offers. We must accept someone’s choice to not do business with us.

In a democracy, everyone, even those of the “inferior” group, can vote. The political and economic rights of all persons must be respected even after “we” win an election. We must tolerate criticism of our views. Everyone must remain free to participate in the next election campaign.

America’s growing political division is undermining tolerance. Polls reveal that about one-third of Republicans and Democrats alike believe it would be “at least a little justified for their side to use violence in advancing their goals,” up sharply from 2017. Persons identifying as “very liberal” or “very conservative” are more likely to see “a great deal” of justification for violence after an election loss.

Public-choice economists like myself have identified many weaknesses of elections and representative democracy. We expect elections to carry too much weight in our political system. Public choice largely sympathizes with Winston Churchill’s famous observation that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” Elections help ensure that government serves the people instead of people serving the rulers. Voting deescalates political conflict as competing factions agree to settle their disputes with ballots, not bullets.

Today, however, many Americans talk about crushing those they disagree with and imposing their political agenda. Perhaps people are merely talking smack as when playing sports or video games. If so, polls may overstate Americans’ mutual animosity.

The late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington observed that democracy has never collapsed in a wealthy nation. Yet researchers do not understand exactly how a peaceful and civilized nation descends into violence. Our biggest choice after now may be whether we will test Professor Huntington’s thesis.

[Originally posted at Yellow Hammer News. Republished with permission.]

Daniel Sutter
Daniel Sutter
Daniel Sutter is Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center and Professor of Economics at the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.


  1. What you are describing is folks, right or left leaning, that are primarily driven by ideology tend NOT to be very rational. As a “common sense” set of observations from a life long Independent, I offer the following (sincerely) to both you & the rest of the Heartland staff:
    1.) Donald Trumps current corrosive, inflammatory reaction to probable defeat is CLEARLY not in our nations best interest. At present, there is NO creditable evidence to support his accusations of widespread voter fraud. To continue the ongoing assault on the Democratic process without the final votes even being fully tallied is reckless and IRRESPONSIBLE! Let the ongoing process continue and IF any major irregularities are discovered in ANY State tally, THEN you do your due diligence and rely on the courts to settle fairly & properly those disputes in line with the RULE of LAW. Trump claims to be the Law & Order President. Good time to show your stuff. STOP POURING GASOLINE ON THE FIRE!!!
    2.) If this ongoing irrational & erratic pattern from the President continues as he seems to “unravel,” responsible Republicans must STEP UP for both the good of our country and to salvage the reputation of their party. Their will be life and the prospect of renewal & rebirth after Trump.
    3.) Some exit polls showed that up to 50% of Biden voters only voted for him as a vote AGAINST Trump. Not surprising to me. I suggest the Republicans (especially) digest that factoid as they move forward with the party strategy & approach.
    4.) As a supplement to #3, the Democrats, therefore have no creditable claim to ANY MANDATE as a result of this election. Provided Georgia voters on January 5, 2021 are as discerning as I think they are, the Republicans will retain a majority in the Senate which changes the entire complexion of the legislative “game” in the next 4 years, regardless if Joe Biden goes a full term (or not). In the House, Pelosi can “spin it” any way she likes, but the LOSS of congressional seats tells me the voters are signaling they don’t have much stomach for a socialist agenda. Pay attention and go to work accordingly. Remember, the 2022 mid-terms will come quicker than you realize. If you promote the “squad,” you can count on being the MINORITY leader (again).
    4.) For those who keep insisting we eliminate the electoral college, I’d submit we just got clear evidence of the BRILLIANCE of the concept! EVERY vote counted, as it should. For those who point to Joe Biden that he won by 4 million popular votes, I DISMISS that completely. If you remove the “overage” in California that skewed the results, the election was DEAD EVEN.
    5.) Divided country? OK, so what? Like it’s more contentious than the run up to the Civil War? Give me a break. The fact that the voters seemingly PREFER a divided government, I’d suggest, indicates a couple things. A healthy MISTRUST of big government and the prospects of one party rule. In the balance, I’d say the outcome of the election shows the average voter is a lot smarter than all the pollsters predicted.
    I think those are some of the the salient points in the 2020 election. I mentioned legacy earlier. In a “normal” year, Donald Trumps record as an incumbent would probably have (comfortably) earned him a second term. But I’ll be honest, policy aside. A lot of Americans are completely EXHAUSTED with his nonsense. He is his OWN worst enemy and that is what cost him reelection. I can only hope over the next few weeks he manages to do a little self reflection and accepts the reality that once all his legal maneuvers end, he simply, and graciously accepts the fact he just LOST what will most likely be proven a fair election. America has lots of work to do. Mr. Trump, don’t do any more damage as we have enough challenges without that unnecessary burden…

  2. I don’t think you get it. It’s not Trump so much as people tired of being suppressed and having an increasingly insane liberal agenda forced on them for their entire lives. We can’t even agree on who should be allowed to live in this country, or wether citizens deserve to have more rights then foreigners in their own country.
    Trump has said nothing that half the country does not echo. Yet he was ridiculed and treated with extreme disrespect. If this is what our leaders think of half of America, is there any option other then violence? Yes. One. Maybe it’s time we split.

    • I think you are (actually) making some of my points. I voted for Trump NOT because I like him, but because I like the Democratic platform a LOT LESS. There is no “Blue Wave” as some (still) claim. On the top of the ballot, Trump’s defeat can at least be partially attributed to his classless, rude, divisive & chaotic style. Folks are TIRED of all the nonsense. What do you think drove the Lincoln Project? Further proof is the Republicans were not significantly harmed down ballot. That indicates (to me) that a large contingent of discerning voters have no “stomach” for far left policies. Disrespect? It all starts at the top and Trump supporters need to face the fact that their candidate acted for 4 years like a 5th grader in a playground “spat.” Not a good look. That PRIMARILY is why the Republicans lost House seats in the 2018 mid-terms and suburban women continued to abandon Trump in 2020. He Pi$$ed too many respectable people off. Stop making excuses for his bad behavior. He has nobody to blame but himself…

    • By the way. I find it unhelpful and dangerous to suggest that violence or splitting our nation are the only remaining options for half of the electorate at this stage. Maybe that “flies” in some third rate Banana Republic, but somehow, I think America is just a little better and more capable than that…


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