Skip to main content

A fragmenting America? – Part 1

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | July 14, 2010

The political struggles and the hot rhetoric of recent years, especially around social issues, has led many commentators to worry – and perhaps some activists to hope – that America is fragmenting; that Americans are becoming increasingly, deeply divided against each other.

Studies of this proposition have yielded a complex picture: Our politics have certainly become more polarized in the last half-century, but average Americans have not become increasingly divided on the “culture war” issues that have so attracted the media and many politicians. The divisions that are deeper and more profound are the social divisions – by immigrant status, by race, and especially the widening division by social class.

Source: Fibonacci Blue

In Part 1 of this post, I review what’s happened on the political and culture wars fronts. In Part 2, I will review the ways that immigration, race, and class — notably, educational attainment — divide Americans.

(I draw from this 2009 article and from chapter 9 of Century of Difference.)

Partying On

It may be hard to imagine, but sage commentators of the 1950s bemoaned the absence of conflict; they thought that there was too much consensus. In best-sellers of the day (such as The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd, and The End of Ideology), intellectuals complained of stifling commonality and conformity. Graduation speakers criticized the youth of the ‘50s as the “Silent Generation.” Some thought well of all this agreement; political scientist, Robert E. Lane, for example, hailed “The Politics of Consensus in an Age of Affluence”: Americans, he thought, would replace divisive politicians with technical experts. But this positive spin on agreement was a minority view. So un-polarized were politics that in 1950 a commission of the American Political Science Association called for more ideologically differentiated  political parties, for a wider split. Beware of what you wish for.

Since roughly the 1970s, Democrats and Republicans even more so moved farther and farther from that central consensus. Party officials and party members became purer” representatives of liberal and conservative ideologies  and fewer office-holders collaborated across the aisle. The single most important – but not the only – process was the GOP’s adoption in the 1970s of the “Southern [white] strategy.”

Each party became more internally coherent. Liberal Republicans like Sen. Jacob Javits (NY, 1957-81) became an almost extinct species; conservative Democrats like Sen. James William Fulbright (AK, 1945-74), who was famously liberal in foreign policy but still conservative on race issues, lasted longer but also dwindled in number. Parties conveyed clearer signals about their ideological positions and voters were more ideologically consistent in their 2010 choices than voters in 1970 had been. This polarization increased during the Clinton presidency and accelerated even more during the George W. Bush presidency. Today, the Tea Party on the right and interest groups like Move-On from the left work to push the parties yet further apart.

These developments would imply that Americans have become politically polarized. Yet, political scientists and sociologists have generally concluded that what happened at the political level did not happen among  Americans generally. (See some references below.)

What Culture Wars?

The clearest claim that Americans did become polarized is the “culture wars” thesis, first laid out by James Davison Hunter in the early 1990s, and then picked up by some partisans. Hunter argued that Americans were dividing along a front defined by religious versus secular world-views. Pat Buchanan, a commentator and sometime Republican presidential candidate, put it this way: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. . . . “ and “Our culture war is about one question: Is God dead, or is God king? . . . With those stakes, to walk away is to abandon your post in time of war.”

Yet, social scientists who have tested the proposition that Americans are picking sides have for the most part concluded that, with the possible exception of the abortion issue, the majority of Americans have not become polarized. Americans still tend to cluster around the middle on those controversial cultural topics, such as the role of women, sexuality, the place of religion, and so forth. In the last generation or two, the American middle has moved modestly to the left on most values issues – for example, increasingly accepting premarital sex, expanding women’s autonomy, lowering racial boundaries, and so on (although not on abortion). Americans have not split into two extreme camps on these topics as the culture wars notion would claim and the loud politics of the day would suggest.

So, while much attention in recent years has focused on the partisans of the culture war, on battles, for example, between supporters and opponents of gay marriage, everyday Americans have not participated much and have not drawn such stark lines in the sand.

A Traditional Worry

Worries over cultural fragmentation have been an abiding concern in American history, from as early as the Plymouth Plantation divisions that led to the settlement of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Ministers in Colonial New England had established the “declension” trope — the story that community was in decline — by the eighteenth century. They warned the tight-knit “community of saints” was dissolving into warring factions 300 years ago and that story remains part of how we understand ourselves. The noted sociologist Robert Bellah, lead author of Habits of the Heart (1985), has noted that it is “obvious” that “it has become part of the common culture to ask whether there is a common culture in America.”


In the second part of this essay, I will discuss where some real and deep divisions lie among Americans.

Claude Fischer is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. The article above was originally published in Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Some Readings

  • Bellah R.N. 1998. “Is there a common American culture?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
  • DiMaggio P, Evans J, Bryson B. 1996. “Have Americans’ social attitudes become more polarized?” American Journal of Sociology
  • Evans JH, Bryson B, DiMaggio P. 2001. “Opinion polarization,” American Journal of Sociology
  • Fiorina M. 2004. Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.
  • Han H, Brady DW. 2007. “A delayed return to historical norms,” British Journal of Political Science.
  • Fischer & Hout, Century of Difference (Ch. 9).
  • Hunter JD. 1991. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.
  • Hunter JD. 1994. Before the Shooting Begins.
  • Hunter JD, Bowman C. 1996. The State of Disunion.
  • McCarty N, Poole KT, Rosenthal H. 2006. Polarized America.
  • Nivola PS, Brady DW, eds. 2006. Red and Blue Nation?, Vol 1 and Vol 2.
  • Williams RH, ed. 1997. Cultural Wars in American Politics.
  • Wolfe A. 1998. One Nation, After All.

Comments to “A fragmenting America? – Part 1

  1. Doesn’t this complete disagreement assume that there was, at a little time in the past, an entity called “America” that was harmonized rather than bitty? Isn’t this a separatist myth that ignores slavery, class, sex, etc.

    • The truth is, while America has the best political, social and economic systems in the world, we still have a few problems to solve.

      One must remember that we have improved since the 18th century when many of our founding fathers supported slavery, wanted make to George Washington a king, treated women as property without the right to vote while far too many people were denied civil rights, etc.

      Since then we have improved greatly, but still must overcome a few remaining cultural failures that have caused environmental destruction, too many people dominated by Us/Them dichotomies and -isms, corruption of far too many of our politicians and judges due to never-ending lusts for money and power, impoverishment of increasing numbers of citizens denied equal opportunities by institutional failures, immoral religious leaders, failed education systems, science that can do great harm to humanity, refusal by far too many leaders to take responsibility and accountability for the consequences of their arrogance, corruption, indolence and ignorance, and failures to actually practice the Golden Rule.

      All we need is enough time to keep improving, but we must first reverse the current trends toward economic, political, social and environmental chaos that are overwhelming us today.

      But then, Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, which requires that our education system meets the challenge of democracy at a much higher level than we have thus far achieved, focusing on providing equality of education and opportunity for all citizens.

  2. Prof. Fischer, do you think we shall ever practice cultural values such as world peace, respect, equality, cooperation, trust, tolerance, generosity, teaching, reading, thinking, questioning, innovation, togetherness, sharing, caring, family, community as our paramount values?

    Or are we on the road to calamity because our political and intellectual leaders do not care more about long term survival of the human race than they do about personal greed and power?

    • “America” is part of the European colonial expansion. Benjamin Geer is right to say that “America” is a nationalist myth as much as I say that “CANADA” “Australia” “Argentina” or “South Africa”. But this does not mean that it is not real or material in history. Professor Claude Fischer is right at saying that blacks will have it hard to assimilate to “white” culture. Blacks are part of the history of creation of “America the White” that story where white people are heroes and great fathers, it is very hard to be a “Black” and hide under the mantle of “whiteness” it is not a black or race problem it’s a “White history problem” a false mythology based on real abuses and cruelty. As for the “Immigrant problem” it is also a temporary “White” problem. The “Immigrant problem” is easy to solve in comparison to the “black problem” or the even harder “White history problem” you can not deny history, but we can try to learn form it.

      • Yes, Prof. Fischer has documented some very interesting observations to read about, but these kinds of observations have been documented throughout history except with some variations due to differences in cultural values between different populations over time.

        Relative to your comment “you can not deny history, but we can try to learn form it.” The sad, if not tragic fact of life is that we just keep proving that we never learn enough from history to prevent us from making the same disastrous blunders over and over and over again for thousands of years.

        The hideous truth is that it has always been our social, political, economic, scientific, educational, religious, etc. leaders who have led us into the decline and fall mode based on their paramount cultural value of lust for money and power instead of the common good and the survival of humanity. That fact is the common denominator that explains why all civilizations before ours have failed, and based on our destructive problems and leadership failures today there is absolutely no reason to believe we are any better able to prevent calamity, especially since we are experiencing so many more disastrously out of control threats today.

  3. The biggest worry appears to be that humans make Us/Them distinctions far too easily, especially in troubling times like today after so much has gone so badly wrong over the last half century even though the legacy of the Greatest Generation gave us more opportunities to prevent destructive dichotomies than ever before in history.

    You might want to discuss the fact that increasing economic, political and social divisions are proving that we are too easily manipulated by propaganda, especially in increasingly troubling times that exist today, such as the part our amygdala plays in widening divisions that our prefrontal cortex has not yet evolved enough to control.

    Why have we been so stupid as to allow so many things to go so terribly wrong when we had so many opportunities to bring world peace and improve quality of life for the entire human race after WWII?

    And finally, you might want to explain why preeminent educational institutions like UC have failed to provide leadership to prevent out of control fragmentations even in our new California that is more diverse, tolerant and innovative than anyplace else in history.

    Is this the really the best we can do?

    • Golden State sat on top of it all,
      Golden State had a great fall;
      All the California scholars and all the California politicians
      Didn’t have the brains to save Golden State from the Patricians.

      P.S. Based on one of the nursery rhymes I read my 7 month-old granddaughter whose generation shall suffer the consequences of our fragmenting culture of greed-ism and elitism.

      And, also as a result of frequent babysitting of my first grandchild, my favorite book has become “What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life” by Professor Lise Eliot of the Department of Neuroscience at Chicago Medical School. Interestingly, some of the information also gives insights into adult brain problems that underlie cultural fragmentation. Far too many -isms appear to be due to the fact that our brain has failed to evolve in time to help us solve our survival problems.

  4. Doesn’t this whole argument assume that there was, at some time in the past, an entity called “America” that was homogeneous rather than fragmented? Isn’t this a nationalist myth that ignores slavery, class, gender, etc.?

Comments are closed.