As Americans, We Stand ... Divided?

The American Values Survey finds that citizens of the U.S. think they're more divided today than they were a decade ago. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks with Don Baer about whether we're really as different as we believe we are.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, watermelon seed spitting contests and barbecue ribs. We'll find out where our Fourth of July food traditions come from. That's next on TELL ME MORE. But first, this holiday is a celebration of our nation and our united purpose to establish our independence. But it's been 237 years since the first Continental Congress, and that unified purpose might just be history.

In a new survey, more than half of Americans describe the country as divided, at least when it comes to politics. The American Values Survey was commissioned for the Aspen Ideas Festival. And joining me now to talk about it is Don Baer, who presented the survey's results in Aspen. Thanks so much for joining us.

DON BAER: Thank you.

HEADLEE: I can't imagine it's a huge surprise to find that citizens of the U.S. think the country is divided. More than 60 percent, though, say the U.S. is more divided than we were, say, 10 years ago. What are they pointing to specifically?

BAER: Well, you know, it's interesting the findings here. What people are telling us is that they feel more divided as a country. But they're also telling us they actually want to be more united, and they're trying to figure out why it is, given that they want to be more united - and they really say this across the board - that they can't be and that they aren't. And so, much of it has to do with issue areas where they don't actually even say that they take different points of view from one another, but on issues that they believe we are divided on.

We asked them who the most unifying figure in America is today. Well, they said, President Barack Obama. Twenty-one percent said he's the most unifying figure. We asked them who they think the most divisive figure in America is today. Thirty-three percent said President Barack Obama.

HEADLEE: So we're divided on that?

BAER: Right, exactly. So one set of issues, category of values, that actually unite Americans. You know, we asked them, which values are most important for Americans to unite around. Sixty-nine percent said moral values, 67 percent said family values. And then we said, which ones is it OK for Americans to be divided on. And this is interesting. Fifty-five percent said it's OK to be divided about religion. Nearly half, 45 percent, said it's OK to be divided about politics.

HEADLEE: And yet, what do they blame then? I mean, if it's OK to be divided on certain things, do they blame religion for the divisiveness?

BAER: No, they don't.

HEADLEE: Do they blame Congress?

BAER: They don't. You know, they blame the political system. They blame our political leadership, and they blame the kind of environment that we're living in at this point, politically. And that - what comes through loud and clear is that it's the political environment that we're in that is to blame for what looks like this division, when in fact, we're not necessarily as divided as we might think.

HEADLEE: So we're unified on what the cause of the division is.

BAER: They think we're unled. You know, after all, when was the last time we heard some of our national political leaders talking about how it's more important for us to be united rather than identifying the issues that we're divided on? You know, we hear and see - a lot of this is what they feel and see in the media.

Not to blame the media, but there's a lot of discussion and debate about where Americans apparently have differences rather than on some of the things where they actually don't claim to have differences anymore. For instance, a lot of the major social issues, around which there have been big, big debates in the last 40 years or so.

HEADLEE: Like gay marriage and abortion?

BAER: Yeah. Eighty-three percent say that it's morally acceptable to have interracial marriage. Seventy-five percent say that it's OK for an unmarried couple to live together. Sixty percent say premarital sex is OK. These are some issues that a generation ago you would've found great division around. But in fact, they pretty much embrace these things at this point - embrace is the wrong word. They find it acceptable.

HEADLEE: Don, can I ask you a kind of meta-question?

BAER: Sure.

HEADLEE: How do we know people are telling the truth? I mean, people in surveys all the time kind of answer according to their best self, right?

BAER: Well, I mean, they're telling us the truth as they perceive it at that moment. And actually, what they're telling us is, based on the questions, they perceive we're divided. What also comes through in this is that, at heart, this is a fundamentally tolerant country.

I found one finding very interesting. Ninety percent of the country believes unity is possible even with different religious beliefs. Now you go to many other parts of the world, you would not find nine in 10 people who would tell you that.

HEADLEE: However, they didn't seem to think that unity is possible with different political beliefs.

BAER: No, that's not altogether true. In fact, some of the answers that they - how can we solve these problems. They'd like to see Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals sit down together more.

They recognize there are differences, and I think there's actually more of a appreciation for, and desire for, finding common ground between the differences that we have than you might naturally think, if you were only kind of looking at the headlines or hearing what's coming from the political environment these days.

HEADLEE: Don Baer is the CEO and chair at Burson-Marsteller and a former senior advisor in the White House. He joined us from his office in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much.

BAER: Thank you very much.

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