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What Is Really Tearing America Apart

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American flag painted on a cracked wall.
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What separates Americans the most?

Race ... religion ... gender ...

According to Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University, often the most divisive aspect of contemporary society is: politics.

Divided We Stand

"Unlike race, gender and other social divides where group-related attitudes and behaviors are constrained by social norms," writes Shanto — with co-author Sean J. Westwood of Princeton University — in the recently published report Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization, "there are no corresponding pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents. "

Political contentiousness — establishing differences and distinctions between people of opposing parties — is often encouraged. "In fact, political hostility toward the opposition is acceptable, even appropriate," the political scientists discovered. "Partisans therefore feel free to express animus and engage in discriminatory behavior toward opposing partisans."

The findings reveal that political partisanship influences decisions and behavior not only inside the voting booth, but outside it as well. Partisanship, the authors contend, "is a political and social divide."

Research shows: More and more residential neighborhoods are politically homogenous. Partisan politics has become a key indicator in interpersonal relations.There is a greater tendency by parents these days to raise objections to a son or daughter marrying someone who supports the opposing political party. "Actual marriage across party lines is rare," the report points out. "In a 2009 survey of married couples, only nine percent consisted of Democrat-Republican pairs."

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Political Profiling

Apparently, political affiliation sometimes trumps racial preference.

The researchers asked 1,000 participants — some African-American, some white — to read through several resumes of high school seniors who were competing for scholarships. The resumes included certain racial cues, such as "president of the African-American Student Association," and certain political cues, such as "president of the Young Republicans."

Race was important, research showed. African-American resume-readers exhibited a preference — 73 percent to 27 percent — for African-American applicants. White readers also displayed a slight preference for African-American candidates.

But when it came to political preference, Democratic and Republican readers chose in-party applicants some 80 percent of the time — even if academic credentials were weaker.

"We were quite surprised at the outcome of the party versus racial divide comparison," Shanto tells NPR.

Conclusion

In the university's summary, Shanto says, "While Republicans view fellow partisans as patriotic, well-informed and altruistic, Democrats are judged to exhibit precisely the opposite traits."

When asked about ways to alleviate the conflict, Shanto tells NPR that his study "does not deal with mechanisms for reducing the divide."

So it's up to us. Maybe that's why we call it the U.S.

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