SOUTH BOSTON, Va. — Outside the Annin Flagmakers factory in this perennial swing state, a summer of discontent is brewing. They feel the country’s divides inside, too — gulfs between rich and poor, left and right, this side and that side, that seem to grow deeper with each passing week.
Yet as their hands glide over broad red and white stripes and sew bright stars to blue rectangles, crafting the most unifying American symbol, the flagmakers 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.
Flag factory workers want unity, not division
“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.”
The splintering that is bared in the overheated rhetoric of a presidential campaign only tells so much. Survey data, the work of academics studying the national ethos and conversations with individuals across the country make clear 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; in lines to buy Powerball tickets and in proud parents amassed on Little League diamonds. 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.
“The United States is the freest and the best country on this earth and that flag represents that,” said Ed Haney, a 69-year-old maintenance mechanic at the Annin plant. “The country was founded by men of different opinions who united on one thing: The freedom to have those opinions.”
Inside Annin Flagmakers in Virginia
Haney and Bouldin work on opposite ends of the sprawling sewing room floor, and political pollsters would see them in different worlds altogether. Haney is white and male, tends to side with Republicans and expects to give his vote to Donald Trump in the fall. Bouldin is black and female, always votes Democratic and plans to cast her ballot for Hillary Clinton. Yet they both speak of their Christian faith, the importance of family, their love of America and what the flag represents.
“It really is the land of the free,” Bouldin said.
American agreement is harder to gauge than division, observes Tom Smith, director of an eminent yardstick of public opinion, the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago. “By their very nature, surveys don’t go out and ask people about things that there’s near unanimity about,” he says, “because that’s rarely interesting.” Still, he notes data captures glimpses of consensus on a range of topics across the U.S. as well as points of national pride and clues on the ways Americans think and live.
Surveys find nearly all Americans believe in helping the less fortunate, in entrepreneurism and small business, and in public schools.
On foreign affairs, they 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.
Most Americans expect the U.S. to fight in another war in the coming years.
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 across age groups. The federal budget should be balanced, a big majority agrees.
Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who studies partisanship and polling, said Americans unite around national pride, symbols such as the flag and pop culture. And though the public is moving closer to mirroring the fierce polarization of politicians, he said, people remain close on many issues.
“The average Democrat and the average Republican are not that far apart from each other,” Miller said.
“The average Democrat and the average Republican are not that far apart from each other.”
To those who insist today marks the country’s most divided time, political scientist David O’Connell says look to history: Early political rivalries were sometimes resolved with duels. The United States was disunited by years of Civil War. Andrew Jackson openly spoke of hanging his vice president.
It’s true that political party differences have sharpened lately — conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are near extinction, and many legislators don’t dare work across the aisle — but average Americans aren’t nearly as divided as their lawmakers.
“The people attending the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer do have more extreme opinions than in the past,” said O’Connell, a political science professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. “But the public? The public remains moderate and open to compromise.”
Even on topics considered among the most contentious, unity can sometimes be found.
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).
Though abortion remains acrimonious, comparatively 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, including the idea of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, most Americans believe undocumented immigrants should be able to remain in the country if they meet certain conditions. (Another Pew poll found 74 percent of Americans held that view.)
A sense of American unity also begins to emerge when comparing the U.S. with other countries, especially in the developed world. Public opinion polls show Americans, far more than those elsewhere, believe hard work is very important to get ahead in life and that individuals have control over their success in life. Americans also express a sense of hope and optimism that’s rare among wealthy countries: They are far more likely, according to Pew, to describe their day as a particularly good one.
Strikingly, Americans stand out among rich countries for 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.
It is not just the weightier facets of life that unify the nation.
Americans love to eat out so much that spending on restaurants and bars — an estimated $54 billion in June, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce — has eclipsed that in grocery stores. Wherever they dine, they love red meat and ice cream and cheese, USDA data shows.
They love shopping. They spend more than five hours a week in stores, according to the American Time Use Survey .
And they love dogs. An Associated Press survey reaching that unsurprising conclusion also noted cats get far more mixed reviews.
Sports bring Americans together, even though team rivalries thrive. Chants of “USA” resound as Olympians compete. The Super Bowl is so popular it has become a de facto national holiday, with more than one-third of the country tuning in to the game. Countless hours are spent fielding fantasy teams or filling in office March Madness brackets.
Many of these everyday markers of consensus were on display on a sun-drenched July day on the National Mall in Washington, where people jogged in team T-shirts, walked their dogs or grabbed lunch at a food truck — all on a stretch showcasing grand-scale symbols of American unity.
Darlene and Tom Stetson rested between two of the Lincoln Memorial’s towering pillars and pondered the question of what unifies the country.
“Sports” was the first thought of Darlene Stetson, a 62-year-old third-grade teacher. Diverse communities come together to cheer their common team.
Her husband, a 61-year-old who works in finance, offered, “Family, school and work.”
The couple, who had traveled from their home in Louisville, Kentucky, acknowledged America’s problems and divisions.
But, he said, “I still think this is the greatest country.”
“I still think this is the greatest country.”
She agreed: “Whenever I’ve been out of the country, I can’t wait to come home.”
Such feelings are pervasive. A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found a large majority of Americans regard the U.S. as one of the greatest countries, even as that survey also affirmed deep splits on politics today.
Americans even find agreement on their weaknesses. Surveys show most lack much confidence in Congress or the overall political system, most doubt Clinton or Trump will unify the country, and more than eight in 10 people believe the country is more divided than in the past.
In the AP-NORC poll, when asked to describe the U.S. in one word, respondents’ answers diverged sharply: Though “freedom” and “great” were the most-uttered responses, words like “struggling,” “declining” and their synonyms, taken together, made up the greatest fraction of answers.
One poll respondent, Alleen Anderson, an 89-year-old retired cattle rancher in Red Oak, Texas, described the country as awesome, said she believed the nation’s best days are ahead and that the U.S. will be less divided in the future.
“I still believe that people will look at one another, find the good parts of each other and the country will be better,” said Anderson, who expects to vote for Trump.
Nearly a thousand miles away, on the edge of Lake Michigan, 25-year-old Qymana Botts comes from a different generation and a different mindset than Anderson. She lives in Gary, Indiana, is working on a master’s degree in education and describes herself as a liberal who will vote for Dr. Jill Stein if the Green Party candidate makes it on her state’s ballot. In one word, she describes America as frustrating, but she doesn’t see it as more divided than the past and believes its best days are ahead.
Botts sees most Americans’ desires as the same: stability for their families and to have a good job. She thinks people are more inclusive toward those of different backgrounds than they once were and more aware of different viewpoints. America is still great, she said, and she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
“We actually, as a society, agree on the most important stuff,” Botts said.
That unity is embodied in the flag. American children start their school days, hand to heart, in a pledge to the flag, and it becomes as much a fixture in their lives as in their history books. It was raised on Iwo Jima and has been draped over Olympians, launched into space and planted at the North Pole. After 9/11, it was flown atop the wreckage of the World Trade Center, pinned to lapels and added to front porches from sea to sea.
AP Photo / Gerry Broome
Annin Flagmakers has seen the ebbs and flows of American patriotism. It opened in 1847 and saw its first sales spike after the Civil War inspired unity across the North. Demand boomed again with World Wars I and II. During the Vietnam War, when fervent opposition led some to burn flags in protest, business was lean, but bicentennial celebrations in 1976 brought a new surge of orders. After 9/11, business was 20 times the norm.
It’s just past Independence Day at the company’s cavernous factory near the Virginia-North Carolina line. It is thick with the smell of dye and glue and the din of jackhammering needles. There is a boom in business now, too, and the plant added a third shift to accommodate demand.
The company isn’t entirely sure what’s driving the orders. Maybe it’s the heated presidential election or the drumbeat of tragedies. Buddy Wilborn, a 59-year-old taking a break from repairing sewing machines, isn’t so sure either. But he sees some signs American unity is remerging.
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.