America's Hidden Tribes


America has never felt so divided. Bitter debates that were once confined to Congressional hearings and cable TV have now found their way into every part of our lives, from our Facebook feeds to the family dinner table. But most Americans are tired of this "us-versus-them" mindset and are eager to find common ground. This is the message we’ve heard from more than 8,000 Americans in one of our country’s largest-ever studies of polarization: We hold dissimilar views on many issues. However, more than three in four Americans also believe that our differences aren’t so great that we can’t work together.

Our research concludes that we have become a set of tribes, with different codes, values, and even facts. In our public debates, it seems that we no longer just disagree. We reject each other’s premises and doubt each other’s motives. We question each other’s character. We block our ears to diverse perspectives. At home, polarization is souring personal relationships, ruining Thanksgiving dinners, and driving families apart.

We are experiencing these divisions in our workplaces, neighborhood groups, even our places of worship. In the media, pundits score points, mock opponents, and talk over each other. On the Internet, social media has become a hotbed of outrage, takedowns, and cruelty - often targeting total strangers.

But this can change. A majority of Americans, whom we’ve called the "Exhausted Majority," are fed up by America’s polarization. They know we have more in common than that which divides us: our belief in freedom, equality, and the pursuit of the American dream. They share a deep sense of gratitude that they are citizens of the United States. They want to move past our differences.

Turning the tide of tribalism is possible - but it won’t be easy. Americans have real differences and real disagreements with each other. We must be able to listen to each other to understand those differences and find common ground. That’s the focus of the Hidden Tribes project: to understand better what is pulling us apart, and find what can bring us back together.

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America's Hidden Tribes

America is not split into two tribes, as we're sometimes told. In fact, we've identified seven distinct groups of Americans. These are our Hidden Tribes of America: distinguished not by who they are or what they look like, but what they believe.

The Hidden Tribes of America

Here's a quick snapshot of each group:

Progressive Activists (8 percent of the population) are deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America's direction today. They tend to be more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media.

Traditional Liberals (11 percent of the population) tend to be cautious, rational, and idealistic. They value tolerance and compromise. They place great faith in institutions.

Passive Liberals (15 percent of the population) tend to feel isolated from their communities. They are insecure in their beliefs and try to avoid political conversations. They have a fatalistic view of politics and feel that the circumstances of their lives are beyond their control.

The Politically Disengaged (26 percent of the population) are untrusting, suspicious about external threats, conspiratorially minded, and pessimistic about progress. They tend to be patriotic yet detached from politics.

Moderates (15 percent of the population) are engaged in their communities, well informed, and civic-minded. Their faith is often an important part of their lives. They shy away from extremism of any sort.

Traditional Conservatives (19 percent of the population) tend to be religious, patriotic, and highly moralistic. They believe deeply in personal responsibility and self-reliance.

Devoted Conservatives (6 percent of the population) are deeply engaged with politics and hold strident, uncompromising views. They feel that America is embattled, and they perceive themselves as the last defenders of traditional values that are under threat.

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The Issues that Divide Us

The Hidden Tribes survey has collected over 200,000 pieces of information on the most pressing issues that frequently divide Americans, hence, it provides a new perspective on those issues. In short, we’re convinced that the Hidden Tribes and the powerful effect of tribalism can supply critical insights into public attitudes on many of our most controversial issues, like the following:

Immigration. Our research showed genuine tension between people’s desire for America to be open and inclusive and their desire for it to be safe and secure. One reason immigration provokes such heated debates is that opposing groups frame the issue in such dissimilar ways. For the two Conservative tribes, the Traditional Conservatives and the Devoted Conservatives, immigration is frequently framed as an issue of immigrants defying laws, the government losing control of borders, and doubts about immigrants’ loyalty to America. For the two liberal tribes (Progressive Activists and Traditional Liberals), the same immigration issues are perceived through the lens of racism, human rights, refugee protection, and the positive value of a diverse society. The views of the three remaining tribes diverge according to the issue at hand, but the Politically Disengaged are more suspicious of immigrants and more likely to support extreme measures to control borders than the other two tribes.

Racial justice and police brutality. The majority of all segments agree that race-related issues are at least somewhat serious and that racism is at least somewhat common. Furthermore, 60 percent of Americans believe that white supremacists are a growing threat in the United States. However, this broad agreement on the problem of racism does not extend to agreement on its symptoms or solution. For instance, 69 percent of Americans believe that we have become too sensitive to issues of race, and a near-unanimous 85 percent think that "race should not be a factor" in college admissions. Meaningful differences in viewpoint persist between white and black Americans on key questions, especially regarding police brutality towards African Americans. However, another crucially relevant factor is whether a person believes personal responsibility or circumstances are more relevant in shaping outcomes in life—a major fault line that divides conservatives from progressives. Those who attribute more importance to circumstance, a defining feature of Progressives Activists, are 30 percentage points more likely to believe that racism needs to be taken more seriously and that Black Lives Matter has brought attention to important issues.

Sex, gender, and morality. Gender identity, sexism, and sexual harassment are all controversial subjects in America today. While 69 percent of Americans consider sexism in the United States to be at least somewhat serious, nearly as many Americans—59 percent—also think people are too sensitive about matters relating to sexism and gender. The country is evenly divided between the progressive view that sexual harassment is still commonplace, and the conservative position that too many "ordinary behaviors" are now labelled as sexual harassment. And while both same-sex marriage and the acceptance of transgender people have the support of three in five Americans, this does not reflect an enthusiastic embrace of new norms towards sexuality. Indeed, more than half of Americans say that there is "pressure to think a certain way" about gay, lesbian and gender issues. More fundamentally, the country is evenly divided on whether our changes in attitudes towards sex and sexuality are making America "more accepting and tolerant" or whether they are simply causing "America to lose its moral foundation".

Terrorism and Islam. Americans' perceptions of the threat and causes of terrorism reflect the country's polarization. While 86 percent of Progressive Activists think Americans are too worried about terrorism, 84 percent of Devoted Conservatives believe Americans do not take terrorism seriously enough. In both instances, the wing segments are outliers. Progressive Activists are the only segment in which a majority thinks that the threat of terrorism is not that serious—a view they hold at three times the national average. Meanwhile, Devoted Conservatives are an outlier as the only group for whom a majority attributes terrorism to religion rather than to individuals: they are more than twice as likely to say that "some religions teach violence and extremism" rather than that "violent people use religion as a justification for their actions." Further, Devoted Conservatives are quite isolated in their particular fear of Islam: they are alone among the segments and twice as likely as the national average to believe that "Islam is the greatest threat to America".

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Real Problems, Real Differences, But Real Common Ground

There is far more common ground among Americans than we might imagine, judging from the constant conflict among pundits, politicians, and social media users. This is true even on some of our most debated issues. The Hidden Tribes survey just scratched the surface on those issues.

For example, a full 81 percent of the population―including Devoted Conservatives, who tend to be the most skeptical when it comes to questions of race―agrees that racism continues to be an at least somewhat serious problem in the United States. The fact that the overwhelming majority of people acknowledge that racism is a real problem opens the door for continued conversations about how the country moves forward.

Another key area of agreement is the aspect of immigration policy regarding Dreamers: people brought to the United States illegally as children and given provisional legal status under the DACA program during the Obama administration. Three-quarters of all Americans believe there should be a pathway for these individuals to obtain citizenship through serving in the military or attending college. This exemplifies how the current polarization is leading to gridlock in American politics and preventing us from finding solutions supported by an overwhelming majority.

One issue that Americans from most tribes regularly discuss is how they feel that people have become too quick to take offense and criticize others’ use of language. Four out of five Americans believe "political correctness has gone too far in America"—a issue where most Americans with liberal views agree with Conservatives, again showing America is so much more than two tribes.

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Our Shared Future

The Hidden Tribes study illuminates several new findings regarding America’s past, present, and future.

  • The American electorate is more complex than the oversimplified story of polarization would make us believe

  • The reason American society appears to be split 50/50 is that the loudest and most extreme viewpoints monopolize airtime and social media space

  • The majority of Americans, the Exhausted Majority, are frustrated and fed up with tribalism. They want to return to the mutual good faith and collaborative spirit that characterize a healthy democracy

  • Being able to discuss our genuine disagreements remains important. At the root of those disagreements are differences in core beliefs―the underlying psychological architecture that governs what we value and how we see the world

  • While our differences are often rooted in divergent views, that does not mean we cannot find common ground

  • By acknowledging and respecting the values that animate our beliefs, we can begin to restore a sense of respect and unity

  • The vast majority of Americans―three out of four―believe our differences are not so great that we cannot come together. Let’s make that a reality.

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The report that you can download here is the first part of More in Common's year-long Hidden Tribes project to understand our polarization and study what can reunite our fractured communities.