CLEVELAND, OHIO —
Ohio residents Art Ledger and John Meehan disagree often: on whether to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, on how to address gun violence, and, yes, on whether the United States is ready for a female president.
In online communities and dining rooms across the country, disagreement on any sensitive topic seems to have the power to fracture or destroy relationships. One doesn't have to look past the comments section of any web article to witness the vitriol.
Many avoid discussing politics altogether, preferring to seclude themselves with like-minded individuals in an insular safe zone, free of criticism.
But Ledger and Meehan don't fall into either category. No topic is off limits, and no disagreement can tear their friendship apart.
"We've both been on the front lines together," Meehan said.
"Get along or die," added Ledger.
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The two are Vietnam veterans and neighbors in an economically depressed Cleveland neighborhood called International Village, situated in a voter-rich swing state that could well determine the future role and leadership of the country.
Meehan, a white retired tax preparer, will vote for Donald Trump in November because he sees the Republican nominee as better able to keep Americans safe from terrorism. Meehan registered as a Republican for the first time last year.
Ledger, on the other hand, is a lifelong Democrat and a proud Hillary Clinton supporter. The self-proclaimed "first black taxidermist in America" and best man at Meehan's wedding says Trump's rhetoric has divided "our brown brothers against our black brothers and our white ones."
The two friends argue at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall "and a few people get upset," Ledger said. "'Those guys are mad at each other!' No, we're not, but we [vehemently] talk about what we believe in, what we stand for."
"And we're not ashamed to say what we say," added Meehan. "We do it within a boundary."
Meehan, outside the door of his house, saw Ledger poking around his bushes, just a few yards away.
"Quit messing with my blackberries!" he said, smiling.
"You got one sweet thing around here that's black," quipped Ledger, "and now you don't want the Democrat eating them. Oh, boy!"
While many Americans echo Ledger's and Meehan's divergent views on this year's election issues, research on the polarization of the U.S. electorate is inconclusive.
A 2014 study by Pew Research Center, conducted among 10,000 U.S. adults nationwide, found that "92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican."
The study also found that the number of people holding negative views of the opposite party had more than doubled over 10 years.
But Americans on the whole are not as polarized as their congressional representatives, said political scientist Chris Tausanovitch, citing his research with colleague Seth Hill that uses data from the American National Election Studies.
"Looking at 67 different policy questions, we don't find any evidence that Americans are giving us more extreme answers or fewer moderate answers than they were in 1956," said Tausanovitch, an assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in an email to VOA.
"At the same time, there are now almost no legislators in Congress who occupy the middle of the political spectrum. Forty years ago, moderate legislators were common."
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Tausanovitch describes this year's general election as a national phenomenon, but one that should not be taken out of context.
"We can't blame people for believing that 50 percent of the country has truly radical views that they disagree with. But the reality just isn't so," he said. "We should keep in mind that much less than 15 percent of Americans have cast a vote for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump combined so far, probably under 10 percent. Yet it seems like those are the only voters that we hear about."
Friendly, heated exchange
On their way to a VFW meetup at a local bar, Meehan and Ledger debated Trump's proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Let me ask you this question," Meehan challenged. "Do we not have a border patrol down there? Do we not have fences down there?"
"To keep those from coming in illegally?"
"Yeah," Ledger repeated, unswayed. He looked down, concentrating on lighting a cigarette.
"So what's the difference between that and a wall? It's just the terminology. We're doing it already!"
"That's a way to explain it off," Ledger replied. "When we're talking about my Mexican brothers, next thing you know, he wants to build a wall and kick my ass out of America!"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa."
But no matter their differences, when it comes to their personal friendship, both men speak of trust and respect.
"You have to respect each other's views," Meehan said. "When you start losing that respect, and you think that everything you're about is the only thing that's out there ..."
"Then you're lost." Ledger interrupted.
Meehan nodded in agreement. "Then you're lost."