Opinion: New survey says polarization among young people, especially Democrats, getting worse

Staff File Photo By Matt Hamilton / Students walk across campus during a break between classes at Dalton State College in Dalton, Ga. in August.

Remember all that talk about unity in President Joe Biden's inaugural address 11 months ago?

"My whole soul is in this - bringing America together" was one of his lines.

"For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury" was another.

It was his way, supporters said, of trying to bring the country together after four chaotic years under Donald Trump.

Now, a new survey by Generation Lab/Axios polling suggests many people weren't listening - specifically the youngest (ages 18-24) voters in his Democratic Party, who favored him by larger numbers (65%) than any other age group.

According to the survey, nearly a quarter of college students wouldn't be friends with someone who voted for the other presidential candidate in 2020. But that amount is much more influenced by Democrats, 37% of whom wouldn't be friends with a Trump voter as opposed to Republicans, only 5% of whom wouldn't be friends with a Biden voter.

The divide widens when shopping at a store or supporting a business owned by someone who supported the other presidential candidate, and going out on a date with someone who so voted.

While 7% of Republicans wouldn't support a business of someone who voted for Biden and 31% wouldn't go on a date with someone who did, 41% of Democrats wouldn't shop at a store owned by a Trump supporter and 71% wouldn't go on a date with one.

Independent voters fell mostly between the two parties, with 11% saying they wouldn't be friends with someone who voted for a different presidential candidate than they did, 13% wouldn't support a business of someone who voted opposite from them and 29% said they wouldn't go on a date with someone who voted for the other guy.

Where it comes to where your bread is buttered - for whom you work - the partisanship eases up a little.

Only 7% of Republicans say they couldn't work for someone who voted opposite them, while 11% of independents and 30% of Democrats say they couldn't.

Women in each survey question were more strident in their views.

While 88% of men said they could be friends with someone who voted differently than they did, only 70% of women said they could. While 77% of men could go on a date with someone who voted differently, only 41% of women could.

Similarly, 84% of men could support a business of someone who voted opposite of them, but only 68% of women could. And 86% of men could work for someone who voted differently than they did, but only 76% of women could.

Interestingly, the percentages of Black and white voters who would do one thing or another were much more alike than were the percentages of men and women.

While the survey doesn't bode well for the current polarization in the country or for taking to heart anything Biden said in his inaugural address, the college age of respondents may offer a few clues.

Younger voters - usually heavily Democratic - are more easily swayed by emotions than facts, are more easily influenced by biased media than older voters and are frequently in the milieu of biased university professors than voters who are out of college.

But even age sometimes doesn't dampen the intolerance.

Two local folks come to mind, one a woman and one a man and both of retirement age. Both Democrats in the end chose partisanship over friendship.

Of the woman, individuals had asked us in the past, "How can you be friends with her? She is so partisan." We replied something about the issue being complicated. But when her partisanship overshadowed our friendship, we wondered if the other people were thinking "I told you so."

In the case of the man, loyalty to party and employer trumped a loyalty to the truth, and another friendship was dampened, if not ended.

What can turn these percentages around, particularly the intolerance among Democrats?

Axios suggests it may have something to do with Trump. While both parties were drifting to extremes before the former president declared his candidacy in 2015, Republicans usually had been the ones to give in on legislation, to let criticism in the media go unchecked and to be forced to play defense.

Trump, indeed, changed that and became the attack dog that Democrats had long been, answering back his critics and choosing not to play defense. Democrats, perhaps seeing themselves in him, not policy-wise but stylistically, didn't like what they saw and aimed to destroy him.

Yet, the former president has been out of office for 11 months, and the survey, taken Nov. 18-22, points only to a worsening of polarization.

Perhaps it's just a matter of time and circumstances. If so, we like what author Graham Greene said.

"People don't like reality," he wrote. "They don't like common sense, until age forces it on them."