On Unity: Vanderbilt Unity Index Measures American Political Unity

Friends and fellow citizens,

The popular, and often repeated, national narrative is that Americans are more politically divided than ever before. We witness harsh debates and dramatic polarization on social media and within our country’s governing bodies, but how do we know if these interactions are representative of public unity as a whole?
In search of a more objective measure of the public’s political unity, Mary Catherine Sullivan, a Vanderbilt Ph.D. candidate, and I set out to create the Vanderbilt Unity Index. The Unity Index tracks a timeline of how unified (or disunified) the American public has been since 1981, using data such as presidential approval ratings; surveys of ideological extremism; social trust polls measured by the General Social Survey; data on Congressional polarization, based on roll call votes; and the frequency of polling questions about protests and civil unrest. The Unity Index is tracked quarterly and ranked on a scale of 0-100, with 100 being the most politically unified.
What we found is while, yes, our unity as a nation has dropped since 2016, we are likely looking at the past with a nostalgic lens. In modern times, we have had few moments of political unity, where the index passed a score of 70. However even in our most divisive times, Americans have not been as far apart as social media and pundits claim. Of the 165 quarters tracked, our unity score only fell below 50 three times.
If you’re interested in learning more about the highs and lows measured in the Unity Index, I encourage you to read our piece in the Washington Post and watch our interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Our belief is the Unity Index can serve as a tool to help us understand where we are as a nation going forward.
Make sure to keep following along so you can read about our next set of data that will be released in July. This unity score will cover the political opinions from the last couple of months, and you won’t want to miss it.
John Geer
Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science, Professor of Political Science
Co-Director of the Vanderbilt Poll
The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy