June 26, 2014
A recently released survey from the Pew Research Center received extensive coverage from prominent media outlets, which were nearly uniform in casting the information in an ominous light:
New York Times: “Polarization is dividing American society, not just politics.”
Washington Post: “In polarized United States, we live as we vote.”
Politico: “Polarization highest in recent history.”
Alan Murray, president of Pew Research Center, wrote an analysis of the data for the Wall Street Journal, under the headline “The Divided States of America.”
Bruce Stokes, the director of global economic attitudes at Pew, offered his own take at CNN.com (headlined “Is America dangerously divided?”), which began:
“If you thought that political polarization in America was bad, think again. Because it’s worse than you thought. And if you’re under the impression that dysfunctionality in Washington is merely a product of partisan political gamesmanship on Capitol Hill, try again. Because a new survey finds that the divisions inside the Beltway actually reflect a deep ideological divide within the U.S. public that manifests itself not only in politics, but in everyday life. Indeed, this polarization is growing — and it has profound implications for economic and security issues that affect the rest of the world.”
Like the headlines, that summary presages a pretty harrowing picture of the state of our national discourse based upon what’s billed as the largest study of U.S. political attitudes ever undertaken by Pew (10,013 adults sampled nationwide).
But I don’t buy it.
Where others see confirmation that the divide among Americans is akin to that which separates those we elect, I’m digesting data that offer hope in our need to get beyond gridlock.
The undeniable bad news is that the number of partisans is on the rise. Those among us with consistently conservative and consistently liberal views have doubled in the last two decades from 10 percent to 21 percent — one in five Americans. But here’s the better news: 80 percent of the country is not in this grouping of ideological uniformity and partisan animosity — a takeaway you’d never have known unless you perused the actual survey.
While “ideological silos” are now common on the left and right, Pew’s survey noted: “These sentiments are not shared by all — or even most —Americans. The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.”
In other words, most Americans are centrists, disbelieving of the partisan hype that they are fed by each party about the other, and would like to see compromise!
That potent political power can be harnessed by nonpartisans was suggested in January, when a Gallup analysis found that 42 percent of Americans regard themselves not as Republican or Democrats, but as independents, the highest-ever recorded tabulation in Gallup history. A similar finding came in November, when Esquire magazine published a detailed analysis of the country’s middle, based upon polling data provided by a joint venture of the Obama and Romney pollsters from the 2012 election.
The Benenson Strategy Group (Obama campaign) and Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies (Romney) surveyed 2,410 registered American voters. They found the American center to represent approximately 51 percent of the electorate, a sum greater than the left and right combined.
Of course, the composite of the Pew, Gallup, and Esquire data raises the question of why the composition of Congress, much less the modern discourse, doesn’t reflect the majority of voices? The answer is lack of engagement. Or, as the Pew survey explained:
“(M)any of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process. The rise of ideological uniformity has been much more pronounced among those who are the most politically active.”
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, has been studying partisanship for decades. He co-authored “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” with Norman Ornstein. Mann simplified the dynamics: Roughly 40 percent of the nation doesn’t vote, is not caught up in the ideological battles, and pays little attention to politics. And while consistent voters are only 20 percent of the electorate, they are a significant number of the 60 percent that does vote.
“Those actively engaged voters now reflect and reinforce the depolarization in Congress among elected officials,” Mann said.
He’s right. Change will come only when the passion of nonpartisans drives their participation. (With the current congressional approval rate at 16 percent, according to Gallup, you’d hope we would be getting close.) Until then, it’s apt to say that political power rests in the center, with rests being the operative word.
Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of “Smerconish” on CNN. Readers may contact him at www.smerconish.com