Divided America: In fractured land, there’s much unity
South Boston, Va.
Outside the Annin Flagmakers factory in this perennial swing state, a summer of discontent is brewing. They feel it inside, too — national divides that seem to grow deeper each passing week. Yet as their hands glide over broad stripes and sew bright stars to craft the most unifying American symbol, the workers sound far more alike than different.
Asked to name life’s most important elements, the same answers come back: family, work and faith. Presented with the idea of living in a foreign land, they uniformly say no, America can’t be beat. Nudged to sum up the values Americans broadly share, they point to their handiwork and what it stands for — freedom, opportunity and pride.
“We may be divided on some things, but when it comes down to the most important things we come together,” said Emily Bouldin, a 66-year-old seated before a jabbering sewing machine on an Annin production floor awash in red, white and blue. “Because we realize, together we stand, divided we fall.”
All the splintering bared in the rhetoric of a presidential campaign belies another truth: Americans are remarkably united too.
You see it in the banality of routine, in morning drives to work and evenings before the glow of a TV. You see it along parade routes, in blood donation lines after tragedies, and in the quiet prayers of the faithful. You see it in the flag.
Bouldin works on the opposite end of a sprawling sewing room floor from Ed Haney and political pollsters would see them in different worlds altogether. Haney is white and male, tends to side with Republicans and expects to vote for Donald Trump. Bouldin is black and female, always votes Democratic and will cast her ballot for Hillary Clinton. Yet they both speak of their Christian faith, the importance of family, their love of America.
“The United States is the freest and the best country on this earth and that flag represents that,” said Haney, a 69-year-old maintenance mechanic at Annin. “The country was founded by men of different opinions who united on one thing: The freedom to have those opinions.”
For all the divisions well-known across the United States, surveys find broad agreement on a range of topics.
On foreign affairs, Americans hold resoundingly favorable views of Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany and Japan, and unfavorable ones of North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Overwhelmingly, they see the Islamic State group as a major threat.
Domestically, there’s near unanimity that veterans should be better cared for, and that more research into renewable energy should be supported. Medicare and Social Security are wildly popular, and most have a positive view of entrepreneurship and small business. Nearly all Americans believe in helping the less fortunate.
The gun debate may polarize Capitol Hill and statehouses, but there is wide consensus among Americans on mandating background checks for gun shows and private sales (85 percent agree, according to a Pew Research Center poll), and on keeping weapons from the mentally ill (79 percent agree).
Abortion remains acrimonious, but relatively few people call for totally legalizing or outlawing it in every case, with the majority of people somewhere in the middle. (Only 24 percent of Americans believe in blanket legalization, according to Pew, and 16 percent are for an outright ban.)
And though immigration remains a flashpoint, most Americans believe people living here illegally should be able to remain in the country if they meet certain conditions. (Another Pew poll found 74 percent of Americans held that view.)
“The average Democrat and the average Republican are not that far apart from each other,” said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
Unity also emerges in comparing the United States with other countries. Americans are more likely than those elsewhere to believe hard work is very important to get ahead in life and that individuals have control over their success. They stand out among rich countries for their optimism and their widespread belief in God, the importance of religion in their lives and the regularity in which they practice their faith. Some 89 percent of Americans express some level of belief in God, according to Pew.
Americans may not agree on whether to support Clinton or Trump, but they unite in their lack of confidence in Congress and the political system overall. They hold rabid allegiances to varying sports teams, but will chant “USA” together as Olympians compete. They love shopping; red meat, ice cream and cheese; and dogs over cats.
That unity is embodied in the flag. American children start their school days, hand to heart, in a pledge, and it becomes as much a fixture in their lives as in their history books. The flag has been draped over athletes, launched into space and planted at the North Pole. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the flag flew from porches from sea to sea.
Annin opened in 1847 and has seen spikes of patriotic fervor throughout its history. At the company’s cavernous factory near the Virginia-North Carolina line, the air is thick with the smell of dye and glue and the din of jackhammering needles. The company added a third shift to accommodate demand but isn’t entirely sure what’s driving the orders.
Buddy Wilborn isn’t sure either. He’s 59 and on a break from repairing sewing machines. When there are trying times — whether terrorism or natural disaster or a hardball political season that drives wedges between people — he sees the flag’s resonance grow. He’s not so sure who he’ll vote for come November, but he sees hope.
“I think our country is starting to come back together,” he said.
David Sterrett, a researcher at The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, contributed to this report.
This story is part of the series Divided America, AP’s ongoing exploration of the economic, social and political divisions in American society.