American voters are actually largely in agreement on many issues, including abortion, immigration and wealth inequality

American voters are actually largely in agreement on many issues, including abortion, immigration and wealth inequality

As the presidential campaign heats up, media reports suggest that Americans are hopelessly divided and headed for a difficult fall — and perhaps a tense January.

But that’s not the whole story, according to reports and polls from the American Communities Project, a journalism and research project we lead based at Michigan State University. The project analyzes the country by looking at 15 different types of communities.

A 2023 study by the American Communities Project (ACP) found high levels of agreement across the 15 community types we study on issues and policies where government plays a serious role, such as taxes, immigration, the state of the economy, and even abortion.

But when the topic of the “culture war” (religion, gender identity, guns, family values) came up, the differences were stark.

That divide between talking about “policy” and talking about “culture”—between arguing about “what we want” versus “who we are”—has a deeply divisive impact on the nation. And if politics and government are to become more productive, Americans must find a way to move beyond questions of cultural identity.

Broad agreement on policy

In our 2023 research, we saw the difference between policy and culture.

The 15 community types in the ACP are demographically, geographically, and politically very different from one another. The deeply rural, largely white community type we call “Aging Farmlands”—small, rural counties scattered across the Great Plains—gave 79% of their votes to Donald Trump in 2020. The densely populated and diverse group we call “Big Cities”—counties that include most of the nation’s 50 largest cities—gave 66% of their votes to Joe Biden.

And yet there was broad agreement on a number of issues concerning policy and the state of the country.

For example, in each of the community types, more than 60% of respondents said they believed “the American economy is rigged to benefit the rich and powerful.” On the statement “The U.S. government should cut social programs to lower taxes,” just 38% agreed in each community — a question we surveyed with Florida voters in a voter roundtable.

Even on the thorny issue of abortion, there was agreement on the statement, “Getting an abortion should be a decision made by a woman in consultation with her doctor, without government intervention.” More than 50 percent in every community type agreed. Many polls show high levels of support for keeping abortion legal, but the agreement across ACP types was surprising to us.

To be clear, the areas of agreement were not all in favor of Democratic positions. The statement “America would be better off if we let in more immigrants” never reached 30 percent support in any community type. And “The government should take a more active role in policing the behavior of the private sector” never reached more than 45 percent support.

In any case, for a country that often feels hopelessly divided, this is a lot of agreement on statements that are aimed at government intervention in one way or another.

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Questions about culture

But when cultural issues became the focus of the survey, familiar divisions within our communities came to the fore.

The largest gap in the survey was the statement, “The right to own a gun is central to what it means to be an American.” Overall, 49% of Americans agreed, but the differences by community type and landscape were large.

In the rural “Evangelical Hubs,” located in the South and Midwest, 71% agreed that gun ownership is central to what it means to be an American, while in the “Aging Farmlands,” concentrated in the Central and Great Plains, 73% said so. In the “Big Cities” and “Urban Suburbs,” outside of cities, the centrality of the right dropped to 30% and 34%, respectively.

There were similar divisions around gender identity.

Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “People should be free to express their gender identity in whatever way is best for them.” Gender expression was much more accepted in diverse communities, such as “Big Cities,” “Urban Suburbs,” and rural “Native American Lands,” at 61%, 60%, and 60%, respectively. In rural “Working Class Country” and “Evangelical Hubs,” the numbers were 37% and 32%, respectively.

Faith and religion

At the national level, a kind of consensus emerged about the importance of faith and religion.

Overall, 58% agreed that “Faith and religion are important parts of American life.” But again, there were wide variations by community type.

In the “Aging Farmlands” the importance of faith and religion reached 77%, in the “Native American Lands” 73%, while in the “Evangelical Hubs”, dominated by Christian evangelicals, it was 70%. In comparison, in the “Big Cities” and “Urban Suburbs” it was 47%, a difference of more than 20 points compared to these rural communities.

And there were sharp differences in the statement “Traditional family structures, with a father who earns a salary and a stay-at-home wife, best equip children to succeed.” The percentages of agreement were highest in the “Native American Lands,” at 59 percent, and in the rural communities of “Christian faith,” “LDS Enclaves,” at 55 percent, and “Evangelical Hubs,” at 54 percent. The “Big Cities,” “Urban Suburbs,” and “College Towns” were at the other end of the spectrum, at 33 percent, 36 percent, and 36 percent, respectively.

Political debate ‘hijacked’ by culture war

These issues—guns, gender, faith, and families—are clearly of great importance to many Americans. But how much do they have to do with politics?

People will cling to their beliefs about gender or live by their personal ideals about faith and family, regardless of who is in the White House. The government cannot realistically control every bedroom and kitchen table in America. The issue of guns can be discussed as a matter of constitutional interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court as much as one’s personal beliefs, but that issue is also deeply personal, as we learned when we talked to people in Michigan about it.

In many ways, these culture wars have hijacked political debate, while there was broader agreement on issues where government does play an important role.

Of course, agreeing on the importance of important issues is not the same as agreeing on what should be done about those issues.

We know from working with people in these different communities that their respective responses to how to deal with a “rigged” system or taxes or abortion or immigration would likely be different. But those conversations are about give and take and working out responses. That’s the point of politics, and it’s different from the culture wars that dominate our discussions.

In a country of 330 million people, there will never be easy answers to the question “who are we?” The country is, in fact, designed to leave that question largely open within broad parameters.

But until politics focuses on the more relevant question of “What should we do?” the gridlock and tensions Americans feel heading into the 2024 election are unlikely to change.