It was 13 years ago that a young senator from Illinois stood in front of the country and declared that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”
Since that 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention catapulted Barack Obama to the presidency, these states have felt less united than ever — whether you define that as red versus blue, cities versus country, or coasts versus the center. This is the era of the 99%, “death panels,” Black Lives Matter, and Donald Trump.
It’s why you may feel as if the US isn’t one nation but rather a collection of bubbles, each with its own politics, economic issues, culture, demographics, and beliefs.
Business Insider reporters have spent the past four months travelling the country, including stops in Alabama, Iowa, Texas, and Vermont, looking at many of the ways this nation is divided but also searching for common ground. The result is more than 24 stories coming this summer, featuring the voices of more than 100 Americans. What we’ve found is a nation still grappling with issues that have bedeviled us for decades, like school segregation, but also a country that is more complex than the traditional narrative of division would suggest.
We’re calling the series “Undividing America.” We’re not “undivided” yet, nor is this country anything like the “united” states that Obama spoke of. But for all the issues that remain intractable, we found signs of hope.
71% of Americans believe climate change is real — including a group of Trump-supporting Texans
Consider this. While lawmakers in Washington squabble, 1,300 miles away in Texas, liberals and conservatives are coming together on the environment.
Already, you find ranchers and farmers with wind turbines and solar panels on their land. On the open plains, it makes financial sense. And that’s in part why the state is a laboratory for a tenuous truce.
“I’m a Republican. I’m also a huge environmentalist,” Ryan Sitton, Texas’ railroad commissioner, who regulates the oil and gas industry in the state, told Business Insider’s Rebecca Harrington.
The irony, she found in a story that kicks off our summerlong series, is that it’s possible to make progress on climate change — if you don’t use the phrase “climate change.”
Some of the conservatives she spoke with believe humans, burning their carbon-dioxide-emitting fossil fuels, are causing global warming. Others, like Sitton, don’t buy it, but they still support environmental policies — focusing on clean air, water, soil, and energy — that can reduce carbon. Now environmentalists from both sides are changing the way they talk about climate change so that even those who are sceptical can get on board.
92% of Americans agree that the government should be able to negotiate with drug companies
Business Insider’s Michelle Mark found a similar story with criminal-justice reform in the state.
In 2005, after years of “tough on crime” policies that put many offenders away for long sentences, Texas’ prisons were so full that Republicans and Democrats teamed up to introduce a bill to the state legislature that diverted funds into treatment centres and rehabilitation programs. It was an effort to reintegrate some of the 20,000 inmates incarcerated statewide for nonviolent drug offenses.
Some called the measure “soft” on crime, but a coalition of liberal groups, conservative think tanks, and prominent Republican donors coalesced and won the support of Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2007, and in the decade since these “smart on crime” ideas have spread to an eclectic mix of states including Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Florida, Wisconsin, and New Mexico.
On other issues, there are surprises. Americans largely agree on what they want from their healthcare: reasonable costs, more people covered, and better outcomes. For instance, 92% of Americans agree that the government should be able to negotiate Medicare drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, and 84% agree that Medicaid expansion should continue. But disagreement on how to achieve those goals has led to a bitter, politically fraught argument over the future of the Affordable Care Act.
Business Insider’s Bob Bryan found that how you market the ACA, better known as Obamacare, makes a big difference. Kentucky named its Obamacare exchange “Kynect.” Kentuckians flocked to the state’s program, making it one of the healthcare law’s success stories. The only problem was many people didn’t realise that Kynect had anything to do with President Obama’s healthcare overhaul. So when the governor’s office changed parties, the future of Kentuckians’ healthcare was thrown into flux. Now, the state’s residents are facing the prospect of losing the healthcare they depend on.
‘Most issues … become local issues’
Along our journey, another recurring theme is that America’s politics are more complex than the typical left-right split.
Lee Maassen is a Republican, but the reality of his work makes his politics complicated. As Business Insider’s Dana Varinsky learned when she travelled to his Iowa dairy farm in May, he employs 26 people and 16 are immigrants, mostly from Mexico.
That has created a gulf between farmers like Maassen who increasingly have trouble finding Americans willing to work on farms and a Republican Party that, under Trump, is taking a harder line against immigration.
Complicated politics can be found within a single family, too.
Watch a sneak peek of Rebecca and Mary’s story here.
One mother and daughter in Alabama hadn’t talked much since Trump’s election. The mother, Mary, adopted Rebecca from South Korea in the 1980s. Rebecca told Business Insider’s Graham Flanagan that her mum’s political beliefs were so different from hers that it became nearly impossible to carry on a conversation. And Rebecca says Mary makes comments about her ethnic background that Rebecca finds offensive. In May, Flanagan travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, to be there when Mary and Rebecca finally sat down to take their first steps toward making peace.
In a Vermont town, another fight is playing out. Rutland was supposed to welcome 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Instead, voters ousted the five-term Democratic mayor who proposed the plan, and only a handful of families actually made it. Now, Business Insider’s Jeremy Berke will tell us about how a new mayor is trying to mend the rift in the town.
BI’s Eliza Relman introduces us to two governors who managed to get elected in states dominated by an opposing party. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts appealed to the deeply blue state by campaigning on his progressive social positions, fiscal discipline, and successful record in Massachusetts state politics and business.
And in Montana, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock won over Republicans and Trump voters with door-to-door politics, convincing working-class Montanans with an economy-focused agenda, which helped him win them over on core issues like “equal pay for equal work.” And he held firm on some nonnegotiables for Montanans, like gun rights.
“From my perspective, most issues … don’t become even sort of the hardline Democrat or Republican issues — they become local issues,” Bullock told Relman.
86% of Americans want more infrastructure spending
Look at America over the past 40 years, and you’ll see remarkable shifts in beliefs on certain issues and remarkable stasis on others.
Take same-sex marriage and abortion.
From just 2007 to 2017, public support for gay marriage in the US has soared to 62% from 37%.
But over 40 years (1977 to today), the public’s view on the legality of abortion has stayed relatively stable.
We tend to agree on other issues. A whopping 86% of Americans believe the government should spend the same or more on infrastructure projects. Seventy per cent of Americans want more spending on public education.
But it’s in education where we find other divides. BI’s Graham Flanagan reveals how, a half-century after the civil-rights movement, the nation still has stark racial lines.
In 2000, Flanagan graduated from Tuscaloosa’s Central High School, which had been a model of integration after a federal court ordered the Alabama city to desegregate its schools in the late ’70s. The city built Central after the order, and for years a diverse group of students made the school a model for the state — in both academics and athletics. But about the time Flanagan graduated, the court lifted its order. The school board then voted to split Central into three schools. Two of them are nearly entirely black. Flanagan went back recently to see what had happened since he left, and the video is eye-opening.
Race and class play into other stories, too. We’ll look at mass incarceration and what happens when felons leave prison. Those with a criminal record face tremendous obstacles to finding jobs, housing, and even marriages. And if they were allowed to vote in some states, it could change who wins elections.
Culture in ‘The Middle’
If you watched television in the 1970s, it was hard to miss a Norman Lear television show. From “All in the Family” to “Maude” and “The Jeffersons,” Lear created and ran more than a half dozen of television’s most popular shows back then, reaching 30 million to 40 million viewers a night.
There were, of course, only three broadcast channels at the time, so the networks had to program for a cross section of the nation. There was no conservative network or liberal network. There were no heavily produced shows reaching small niches on HBO or Netflix.
But Lear’s plots featured discussion of race and class and hot buttons like abortion.
“We were encouraging conversations about issues,” Lear, 94, told Business Insider in June. “Right now, it’s far more fractured and far fewer people are being influenced or consciences raised because there’s just so many places for drama and entertainment.”
Business Insider’s Jethro Nededog will look at whether it’s even possible for a television show to push conversation across divides in 2017. One possibility is a show called “The Middle,” which features a working-class Indiana family. It has been on a few years but is having its cultural moment now.
“People realised, ‘Hey, wait, you guys are a Midwest show about blue-collar people,’ and all of a sudden we felt like the show kind of had a new attention brought to it,” DeAnn Heline, the cocreator of the ABC comedy, told Business Insider.
In Washington, our politics seem more polarised than ever. Party leaders spent years engineering congressional districts to allow more partisan politicians to win seats in the House of Representatives. That has left fewer leaders trying to appeal to an American middle ground and less willing to compromise with their peers on the other side.
Americans have sorted themselves, too. Liberals with advanced degrees are increasingly moving to big, coastal cities, living next to people who look like them and agree with them.
In rural and exurban communities, you’re likely to find conservative churchgoers. They tend to be less educated and more affected by seismic economic shifts. As BI’s Elena Holodny will report, many in these regions sought out jobs in retail and other service sectors as manufacturing jobs vanished to outsourcing and automation. Now those jobs are at risk too, succumbing to e-commerce and a shift away from buying things at malls and instead paying for experiences like meals and travel.
That’s just the start. In the weeks to come, “Undividing America” will look at how Chick-fil-A moved beyond its Southern and Christian image and conquered cities like New York. We’ll profile today’s teenagers, examining how they live their lives, what they believe, and whether they’re hopeful about the future. We’ll look at what happens when a bank decides to forgo its normal standards and give loans to lower-income residents of Detroit (spoiler: borrowers pay them reliably and the loans help improve lives). Our reporters will consider “safe spaces” on college campuses and efforts to diversify thought in the classroom. And we’ll find out what happens when leaders of a city that is literally divided by a highway decide to put things back the way they were.
We’re not covering every divide and every issue. After the 2016 election, many have been reported on extensively already. But it’s our hope that over the next few weeks you’ll get a new sense of the problems the country faces and the people who are working — and sometimes succeeding — to undivide America.