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Divided America: Global warming more polarizing than abortion

Tempers are rising in America, along with the temperatures.

Two decades ago, the issue of climate change wasn’t as contentious. The leading U.S. Senate proponent of taking action on global warming was Republican John McCain. George W. Bush wasn’t as zealous on the issue as his Democratic opponent for president in 2000, Al Gore, but he, too, talked of regulating carbon dioxide.

Then the Earth got even hotter , repeatedly breaking temperature records. But instead of drawing closer together, politicians polarized.

Democrats and scientists became more convinced that global warming was a real, man-made threat .

But Republicans and tea party activists became more convinced that it was — to quote the repeated tweets of presidential nominee Donald Trump — a “hoax.”

When it comes to science, there’s more than climate that divides America’s leaders and people, such as evolution, vaccination and genetically modified food.

But nothing beats climate change for divisiveness.

“It’s more politically polarizing than abortion,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “It’s more politically polarizing than gay marriage.”

Leiserowitz says his surveys show 17 percent of Americans, the fastest-growing group, are alarmed by climate change and want action now, with another 28 percent concerned but viewing it as a more distant threat.

But there’s an often-vocal 10 percent who are dismissive, rejecting the concept of warming and the science

Sometimes dismissiveness and desire for action mix in one family.

Rick and Julie Joyner of Fort Mill, South Carolina, are founders of MorningStar ministries. Most of the people they associate with reject climate change. Their 31-year-old daughter, Anna Jane, is a climate change activist.

As part of a documentary a few years ago, Anna Jane introduced Rick to scientists who made the case for climate change. It did not work. He labels himself more skeptical than before.

“They’re both stubborn and equally entrenched in their positions,” says Julie, who is often in the middle. “It doesn’t get ugly too often.”

 

TRIBALISM

People in the 1960s “had faith in science, had hope in science. Most people thought science was responsible for improving their daily lives,” says Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

Now “we see partisan polarization or ideological polarization,” says Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at Northeastern University.

The split with science is most visible and strident when it comes to climate change because the nature of the global problem requires communal joint action, and “for conservatives that’s especially difficult to accept,” Nisbet says.

Climate change is more about tribalism, or who we identify with politically and socially, Nisbet and other experts say. Liberals believe in global warming, conservatives don’t.

Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and GOP consultant, helped South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis run for the U.S. House (successfully) and the Senate (unsuccessfully). They’d meet monthly at Inglis’ home for Bible study, and were in agreement that global warming wasn’t an issue and probably was not real.

After seeing the effects of warming first-hand in Antarctica and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Inglis changed his mind — and was overwhelmingly defeated in a GOP primary in 2010. Woodard helped run the campaign that beat him.

“I was seen as crossing to the other side, as helping the Al Gore tribe, and that could not be forgiven,” Inglis says.

Judy Curry, a Georgia Tech atmospheric scientist and self-described climate gadfly, has experienced ostracism from the other side. She repeatedly clashed with former colleagues after she publicly doubted the extent of global warming and criticized the way mainstream scientists operate. Now she says, no one will even look at her for other jobs in academia.

 

WHAT CHANGED

In 1997, then-Vice President Gore helped broker an international treaty to reduce heat-trapping gases from the burning of coal, oil and gas.

“And at that moment” says Leiserowitz, “the two parties begin to divide. They begin to split and go farther and farther and farther apart until we reach today’s environment where climate change is now one of the most polarized issues in America.”

Consider lobster scientist Diane Cowan in Friendship, Maine, who expresses dismay.

“I am definitely bearing witness to climate change,” Cowan says. “I read about climate change. I knew sea level was rising but I saw it and, until it impacted me directly, I didn’t feel it the same way.”

Republican Jodi Crosson, a 55-year-old single mother and production and sales manager in Bexley, Ohio, thinks global warming is a serious problem because she’s felt the wrath of extreme weather and rising heat. But to her, it’s not quite as big an issue as the economy.

Scott Tiller, a 59-year-old underground coal miner in West Virginia, has seen mine after mine close, and says coal is getting a bad rap.

“I think we’ve been treated unfairly and kind of looked down upon as polluters,” Tiller says. “They say the climate is changing, but are we doing it? Or is it just a natural thing that the Earth does?”

 

BRIDGING DIFFERENCES

Overwhelmingly, scientists who study the issue say it is man-made and a real problem. Using basic physics and chemistry and computer simulations, scientists have repeatedly calculated that most of the extra warming comes from humans, instead of nature. Dozens of scientific measurements show Earth is warming. Since 1997, the world has warmed by 0.44 degrees (0.25 degrees Celsius).

Repeatedly explaining science and showing data doesn’t convince some people to change their core beliefs, experts say. So instead some climate activists and even scientists try to build bridges to communities that might doubt that the Earth is warming but are not utterly dismissive.

The more people connect on a human level, the more people can “overcome these tribal attitudes,” Anna Jane Joyner says. “We really do have a lot more in common than we think.”

 

DIVIDED AMERICA: Rosy economic averages bypass many in US

Dozens of FedEx jets queue up for takeoff at the airport here in Memphis, Tennessee. Beale Street, the heart of the music district, hums with tourists. Yet the empty storefronts in Memphis’ moribund downtown and the cash-advance shops strewn near its highways tell another story.

It’s a tale of two cities, all in one place. And it’s a tale of two Americas: the one that national averages indicate has all but recovered from the Great Recession and the one lost in the statistics.

The pattern is evident in cities and towns across America, from Memphis to Colorado Springs, Colorado, from Wichita to Jacksonville: The national numbers aren’t capturing the experience of many typical people in typical communities.

         This story is part of Divided America, AP’s ongoing exploration of the economic, social and political divisions in American society.

A key reason is that pay and wealth are flowing disproportionately to the rich, skewing the data used to measure economic health — and producing an economy on paper that most Americans don’t recognize in their own lives. That disconnect has fueled much of the frustration and anxiety that have propelled the insurgent presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Again and again, primary voters who were most worried about the economy told pollsters that they had cast their ballots for Trump or Sanders, according to Edison Research, which conducted the surveys on behalf of The Associated Press and television networks.

Trump’s candidacy, in particular, has been driven by support in some of the most economically distressed regions in the country, where jobs have been automated, eliminated, or moved to other states and countries. It’s in these places that the outsider message of an unconventional candidate promising a return to the way things used to be resonates most.

Mike Williams earns $22 an hour as a maintenance worker at an Owens-Corning factory, along with health care and retirement benefits. But after a recent raise, his hourly pay has only recently returned to where it was a decade ago, when he worked as a welder.

“I feel like I’m going backward rather than forward,” Williams, 51, said on a recent afternoon after finishing his shift.

In March, Williams voted for Trump in the state’s primary, which the real estate billionaire won easily. One reason he backed Trump, he said, is he feels less secure than in the past, when more manufacturing work was available.

“I remember when you could quit a job today and go to work somewhere else tomorrow,” Williams said.

After seven years of national economic expansion _ to the point where the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates again _ the depth of such insecurity across America has caught many observers off guard.

Said Carl Tannenbaum, chief economist at Northern Trust and former economist at the Federal Reserve: “The averages certainly don’t tell the whole story.”

Consider incomes for the average U.S. household. They ticked up 0.7 percent from 2008 to 2014, after taking inflation into account. But even that scant increase reflected mainly the rise in income for the richest tenth of households, which pulled up the average. For most others, incomes actually decreased _ as much as 6 percent for the bottom 20 percent, at a time when the economy was mostly recovering.

In Memphis, hiring resumed after the recession and the unemployment rate has declined to match the national figure of 5 percent. Yet those figures, too, obscure as much as they reveal: Many of the new jobs, in Memphis and elsewhere, are in lower-paying industries and are more likely to be part time or temporary.

In Millington, a Memphis suburb where Trump held a rally in February at a military airfield, residents complain that most of the available jobs are in the fast-food chains that dot Highway 51, the main thoroughfare.

The U.S. economy has added a healthy average of roughly 200,000 jobs a month since 2011. Yet most have been either high-paying or low-paying positions. By the end of 2015, the nation still had fewer middle-income jobs than it did before the recession, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

That reflects what economists call the “hollowing out” of the workforce, as traditional mid-level positions such as office administrators, bookkeepers, and factory assembly-line workers are cut in recessions and never fully recover their previous levels of employment.

In Memphis, jobs in the one-third lowest-paying industries, such as retail, restaurants and hotels, are the only category to have fully recovered from the recession, according to Moody’s Analytics. Higher- and middle-paying jobs still trail their pre-recession levels.

In the first half of the recovery, jobs grew 5.6 percent nationwide. Yet in the wealthiest one-fifth of zip codes, hiring jumped 11.2 percent, according to the Economic Innovation Group think tank. For the rest of the country, total jobs increased just 3.3 percent.

“It’s hard to find an average city,” Tannenbaum says.

The same is true for households. These data suggest that the post-World War II trend of a steadily growing middle class, lifted by broader national prosperity, is reversing.

Slightly fewer than half of adults now fall in the middle-class camp, according to the Pew Research Center, a shift that followed four decades of decline. In 1971, 61 percent of households were middle class, according to Pew, which defines middle class as income between two-thirds and double the median household income.

Chris Rice, 29, has worked steadily in the Memphis region for the past 10 years, all at temporary jobs. Rice most recently worked as a forklift driver for Electrolux and for CEVA Logistics, a warehouse firm. The CEVA job ended after the company lost a contract to distribute Microsoft’s X-Box.

Rice said he was hopeful of getting a new temp job at a plant owned by printer manufacturer Brother International.

Still, “I’d love to have a permanent job,” he said. “I’m tired of going from temp agency to temp agency when there’s no work.”

Healing the divisions in postelection America

APPOMATTOX, Va. – Baine’s Books sits in the heart of this historic village, a Main Street institution where townspeople gather for coffee and conversation and, every Thursday after sundown, an open mic night that draws performers from near and far with guitars and banjos in hand, bluegrass and blues on their lips.

Talk of church and school, and most certainly music, almost always takes precedence at Baine’s. But we’ve stopped in at election time, and Lib Elder is at a corner table tucking into a chicken pot pie, an Obama-Biden button pinned to her blouse right next to her heart.

She knows without asking why a reporter has come to this corner of southern Virginia to write about an election that divided America among so many lines.

Red or blue. Left or right. Big government or small. Tea party or Occupy. Ninety-nine percent or one. Employed or out-of-work. Black or white or brown.

This is, after all, “where our nation reunited,” said Elder, her voice tinged with slight sarcasm as she quotes the slogan adorning every sign into the town where, on Palm Sunday 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, marking the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

It’s a nice idea, that a place could symbolize peace and harmony and, even, healing after what was inarguably the most divisive time in our nation’s history.

It’s just not something that Elder finds particularly authentic after another cutthroat election year across these “united” states.

The acrimony is still too fresh and far too raw. There was the family member, related by marriage, who accused Elder of “hating” her country because she had sent him a fundraising email for Barack Obama; Elder mistakenly believed he was a Democrat. And the white teenagers at the Appomattox Railroad Festival who saw her Obama button and jeered: “You know he’s black, don’t you?”

Peace and harmony? Elder, for one, doesn’t see them. Not in Appomattox. Not in America. Not even now that Election 2012 is behind us at last.

“I think we are much more divided,” said Elder, who heard similar concerns when she made get-out-the-vote calls during the campaign. “It’s not that people hate the election. … They just hate everybody screaming all the time. It’s harder to hear anything, the louder you get.”

And these days, she added: “Everybody’s voice is louder.”

It’s a familiar election-year narrative, that Americans – not just the candidates, not just the parties, not just the pundits who shriek at us from partisan programming – but everyday Americans themselves are divided by an ever-widening gulf. We see it in the narrow margin separating winner from loser on Nov. 6.

Exit polling also seems only to reaffirm these chasms. On one side we have women, the poor, people of color, urbanites, young voters and non-churchgoers. On the other we have men, those who are rich and white, rural Americans, senior citizens and those who attend church regularly.

Said Republican strategist and CNN commentator Alex Castellanos as he visibly agonized over this on election night: The country, “right now, it is split into pieces.”

But is all of this an every-four-year phenomenon that goes away when the yard signs come down and the Facebook tirades finally end, or at least subside? Can we do as our leaders do? Debate with fingers thrust in each other’s faces, tearing one another apart, and then shake hands, return to our corners and somehow attempt to live and work together once more?

In this slice of Virginia – a literal battlefield turned electoral battleground – there are those who are no longer sure.

They, like Elder, sense that something has changed. That the much-discussed polarization of this election will live on long past it, in ways depicted by more than a mark on a ballot.

Friendships may wilt, suggested local lawyer Michael Brickhill, as some “fade out of social circles that you no longer feel comfortable with … if there are strong differences of opinion.”

He recalled a business dinner in California not long ago in which the group agreed not to invite a guy who’d been ranting about the election.

“They were really, really afraid that he would not be able to relate on the common ground that we had formed,” which had nothing to do with politics, Brickhill said.

Others may be hesitant to, at least publicly, brand themselves by party identity, said Bryan Baine, a former composition instructor who now owns the bookstore in Appomattox.

“Why wouldn’t you be increasingly reluctant to put that label on yourself if it means this whole bunch over here is going to make assumptions about you or that whole bunch is going to make assumptions about you just because you said you were a Republican or Democrat?” he said.

Young and old, black and white, Republican or Democrat, so many in the area found accord on the notion of discord – even if the lens through which they viewed this division was filtered by their own unique perspectives and experiences.

Madeline Abbitt, a lobbyist who works in Richmond but lives in Appomattox County, sees polarization as a rural vs. urban issue. “I could look at the people in my condo unit (in Richmond) and I bet out of about 300 people, two might know what a deer is,” she said, only half-joking about those who likely oppose hunting and groups such as the National Rifle Association. “And you get out here, and you may know two or three people who know a gay couple.”

Joe Day, the African-American chair of the Appomattox County Democratic Committee, views America’s differences through the prism of race. He recalls the slurs scrawled across Obama signs in 2008 and finds little progress in race relations four years later, even with the president’s re-election.

“It’s still racism,” said Day, bemoaning the percentage of black teens in detention centers and a lack of black faces in city jobs. “Mr. Obama might be the first black president and we might’ve seen history. But there’s no unity in America.”

Jan Greene, visiting the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park on her way to a convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, sees parallels between what divided us in the 1800s and today. “I think especially in the South we are still very resentful of big government,” said Greene, who lives in Bradenton, Fla. “Washington has taken over more and more aspects of our lives.” Still, she added, “The South doesn’t have the strength to rise again.”

Brickhill, the lawyer, lives in nearby Lynchburg, Va., home to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church. Before the election, The Lynchburg Ledger newspaper published a column called “Can a Christian Vote for a Mormon?” – making the case for why those in the local Christian community could vote for Mitt Romney for president, even if a “Mormon would be unacceptable” in any leadership position in a Christian church.

Brickhill finds his community polarized along religious lines, certainly, but also “politically, socially, socio-economically. We’re polarized by our affinity for local collegiate teams. It’s either Virginia or Virginia Tech, and we are on the dividing line here.”

Perhaps these deep divisions have always been there, stemming from long-ago wounds that never mended or stereotypes formed via our peers or our parents or the place we call home.

Perhaps we just feel more divided because, as Elder suggested, we are more exposed to our dissimilarities in this very loud Facebook, Twitter, anonymous-online-comment-driven world, where everyone seems more emboldened to point out our many differences no matter the consequences.

And yet there are consequences, and so the question begs asking: Where is the line between a polarized America that is productive, and one that is destructive?

Among the many lines dividing us, where and when do we draw this one in the sand?

“Democracy is not about achieving agreement. It’s about figuring out how to live together when we don’t agree,” said social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who penned a pre-election column in The New York Times dishearteningly titled: “Look How Far We’ve Come Apart.”

Haidt is among those who believe that polarization itself isn’t a bad thing. “The competition between ideas can be healthy,” he noted, “or it can turn toxic.”

Unfortunately all signs before this election were pointing toward toxic. He cited a few studies, including research showing that Congress is more ideologically polarized than at any time since the end of the Civil War, a downward spiral that began with the cultural wars of the 1960s and 1970s during which the Democrats became “the party of civil rights” and the Republicans aligned themselves with the religious right.

Of course it’s tempting to write that off as a Washington problem among the so-called political “elites.” Not so. Everyday Americans feel more hostility and dislike toward those from the opposite party than at any time since the American National Election Studies began polling on the subject in the 1970s.

And these feelings go beyond where one side or the other comes down on any particular issue.

“Politics has become a litmus test now for all kinds of things,” said Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford whose research on polarization finds the lines blurring between political differences and how one chooses to relate on a personal level.

Take online dating: “People don’t say anything about politics,” he said, because “you’re risking turning off a whole bunch of people.” Or consider cross-party marriages. Analyzing polling data, Iyengar found that whereas in 1960 about 5 percent of Americans would be upset if their child married someone from the other party, in 2010 that rose to nearly 40 percent.

“Fifty years ago when people were asked that question they just laughed …‘Why would I care about the party politics of my future son-in-law?’

“But today,” he said, “they care.”

This plays out every day in communities big and small across America, in myriad ways that remind us that division doesn’t end when the polls close on Election Day.

In Montana, Helena resident John Driscoll was so taken aback by a truck driver’s reaction to his Obama bumper sticker that he wrote a letter about it to a local newspaper. Driscoll had pulled over with a flat tire, and the truck driver stopped to assist but then admitted: “If I’d known you were Obama people I wouldn’t have stopped.” Later, at a tire repair shop, another man stared at the sticker – and then at Driscoll – and sniffed, “You can’t be serious.”

“It’s those kinds of things that tell you something, I guess,” Driscoll, a former Democratic legislator in Montana, said in an interview. “People are generally very respectful of each other and I think they still are, but not so much that I didn’t want to write that letter.”

In his book, “The Big Sort,” author Bill Bishop reveals how and why Americans have segregated themselves geographically, economically, religiously, socially and, yes, politically into like-minded communities. In one example, he writes about a Texas Republican who was ostracized from an Internet listserv in a liberal Austin neighborhood after he recommended a candidate for the board of the local community college.

“Within the day, the newsgroup reacted in a way that wasn’t as much ideological as biological,” wrote Bishop. This man “wasn’t just someone to be argued against. For the protection of the group, he needed to be isolated, sealed off, and expelled.”

“Politics,” said Bishop, “has become more about belonging to a tribe than it is about policy. And people will do almost anything to remain in their tribe.”

After all, he added: “How do you compromise on your identity?”

Pennsylvania librarian Roz Warren explored that very idea in a column she wrote this election year for a women’s website, revisiting the moment she discovered that her now daughter-in-law was a Republican. The lifelong Democrat found herself not only questioning how she’d raised her son – “loving a Republican was the one thing our son could have done to profoundly shock both his parents,” Warren wrote – but re-examining her own attachment to political identity and the perhaps skewed importance it had in her life.

Of course, Warren said in an interview, what matters far more than her daughter-in-law’s political preference is her heart – and her love for Warren’s son.

Besides, her son has now informed her, both he and his wife consider themselves independents.

“I feel very optimistic about the fact that the next generation perceives itself as independents … the focus being on, ‘Let’s you and I talk about issues that matter to us and not identify ourselves as Democrats and Republicans’ … with all the baggage that that entails,” she said. “Perhaps there is some hope.”

Just outside of the town of Appomattox, past the rolling hills where American once fought American, is the monument that gives this community its place in history. National Park Service Ranger Ernie Price’s office window looks out over the house where Lee and Grant arrived at the terms of surrender.

Price understands clearly the relevance between what divided Americans then and now: The many questions over government’s role in our lives, and ongoing disputes over racial inequality and freedom and individual rights over the greater good of the nation.

He also sees lessons that today’s leaders might take from what happened at Appomattox in 1865, in the cordiality exhibited by the two generals, and the compromises they were able to reach. In the respect bestowed by one-time enemies when each army saluted the other as the rebel troops laid down their arms before their Union adversaries.

“Just days before these guys were shooting at each other,” he noted.

The metaphor can hardly be missed.

Within hours of this election, Romney and Obama and Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington were talking about unity and compromise, about promising to do their part to find bipartisan solutions to the many problems facing the nation. But only time will tell whether our long-standing gridlock ends with some sort of deal and a collective salute.

In the meantime, what of the rest of us? Can we, too, if not erase our many lines in the sand find reason enough to cross over them every now and again?

Some see that as unlikely, fearing the animosity that has been growing across parties and among people these past years will only worsen over the next four.

Bryan Baine isn’t one of those.

There were no Romney or Obama signs gracing the windows and walls this election year at his bookstore on Main Street. Rather, his shelves are filled with books by Rachel Maddow, host on left-leaning MSNBC, and Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor. There’s a memoir by former Republican President George W. Bush, and biographies of Bob Dylan.

Baine knows how most in town might label him politically, but he prefers nowadays to just not say one way or the other – or even talk politics with his neighbor-customers.

“There so much I’d rather talk to you about. What music you listen to. What your family’s like. What literature you read. Those are much more interesting to me than who you vote for or what you think about abortion or gay marriage or whatever the hot button issue is,” he said. “In small towns we have to live with each other, and I think most of us are able to look at the person who has a different position and still move on.”

His Thursday open mic nights are the perfect example. “You’ll be sitting there and there’ll be people that you can peg as pretty conservative or as a hippie, and one might be playing bass and one’s playing mandolin.

“Democrats and Republicans. Together,” he said. “Just not talking politics.”