The high-volume shouting matches over the theology of Duck Dynasty, the rollout of Obamacare, the constitutionality of surveillance by the National Security Agency and so much more make it obvious that our nation has never been more polarized over politics and culture, right?
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Not so fast. The apparently massive and unbridgeable gulfs between Republicans and Democrats, men and women, gays and straights, secularists and believers, rich and poor, and coastal elites and heartland Americans are belied by data that show substantial and growing majorities actually agree on a wide variety of important social and policy issues and attitudes.
Here’s a sampling:
- Pot legalization. As Colorado and Washington State begin selling legal weed, fully 58% of Americans say the drug should be legal. That’s up from just 12% in 1969, says Gallup.
- Abortion. Few issues are as hotly contested, and few issues have generated such consistent agreement, with 78% of us thinking abortion should be legal under all or some circumstances, and just 20% thinking it should be illegal in all circumstances. Those numbers basically haven’t changed since 1975.
- Homosexuality. In 2001, just 40% of Americans thought “gay or lesbian relations” were morally acceptable. Last year, 59% had no problem with them. And 53% now think same-sex marriage should be given equal status to conventional couplings. That’s up almost 20 points from the start of the century.
- Health insurance. As Obamacare cranks up, 56% believe that it is not “the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage.” That’s up from 28% in 2006. Only 42% — down from 69% in 2006 — think providing health insurance is the government’s responsibility.
- Trust in government. Just 19% of Americans “trust the government in Washington to do what’s right” all or most of the time. That’s down from 60% in 2002. Meanwhile, 81% of us don’t expect the government to do what’s right all or most of the time, up more than 40 points in the past decade. And a record-high 72% believe government “will be the biggest threat to the country in the future.” During the Obama presidency, 55% say the government “is doing too much.”
Of course, all of these issues — and many others — contain nuances and contexts that need to be taken into account. And most issues show partisan differences too, with Republicans pulling in one direction, Democrats in another and Independents (who are, at 44%, the single largest bloc of voters by far) somewhere in between. But it’s striking that Americans seem to be becoming more socially liberal and fiscally conservative with every passing year. That just isn’t reflected in the platforms of the major parties, with the GOP only getting more conservative and the Democrats only more liberal.
With very few exceptions, you never hear a Republican or Democratic politician or a cable host talk about such numbers in a systematic way. Instead, Fox News folks yammer on about how gays are demanding special rights and the government is spending too much (except on defense!). Over at MSNBC, the mirror image holds sway. That’s because most politicos — and their analogues in the media — almost always come from the fringes of their respective ideologies.
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In works such as Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized America (2004) and Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics (2010), Stanford political scientist Morris P. Fiorina explains that the mechanisms for selecting candidates and party platforms reward special-interest groups that tend to have very narrow and unrepresentative views. “A polarized political class makes the citizenry appear polarized, writes Fiorina, “but it is only that — an appearance.” In short, we are faced with political choices that don’t represent our actual attitudes toward politics. The same holds true in cable news, where many talkers are former or future party apparatchiks or pulled from archly ideological publications.
The “bulk of the American citizenry,” Fiorina cheekily suggests, “is somewhat in the position of the unfortunate citizens of some third-world countries who try to stay out of the cross fire while Maoist guerillas and right-wing death squads shoot at each other.” That’s a pretty good description of channel surfing between Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity or flipping between a White House presser and a John Boehner speech, isn’t it?
Of course, recognizing that huge areas of agreement already exist among Americans doesn't mean that 2014 — or any other year — should be one giant “Kumbaya” sing-along. How to address economic stagnation, immigration, the debt limit, long- and short-term deficits, foreign policy and more has never been easy, even when everyone absolutely agrees. But with so many pressing problems confronting Washington, acknowledging that more unites us than divides us might be a smart way to create a future that doesn’t revolve around hermeneutic readings of the theological implications of reality-TV stars or actively ignoring what large majorities of Americans actually believe.