Americans are far less polarized than the national media, political parties and special-interest groups want everyone to believe. Passion-fueled arguments with talking points from talking heads provide great fodder for fundraising, internet clickbait and cable TV ratings. It isn’t reality for most Americans.
The Deseret News-driven American Family Survey for 2015 and 2016 showed that Americans are indeed less divided on critical issues than what is reported and accepted online, in the media and in print. The political left and right actually have most things in common, including seemingly trivial things like college graduation rates, how often they eat together as a family or how they save to get out of debt.
A new study by Amnon Cavari and Guy Freedman, published in the University Chicago Press, posits that polarization is real, but only within a loud and limited group of Americans.
In their study, Cavari and Freedman demonstrate how people who are willing to participate in opinion surveys are more divisive and hold stronger, more partisan political attitudes. Cavari and Freedom conclude, “This motivational discrepancy generates a bias in survey research that may amplify evidence of party polarization in the mass public.”
With increasing frequency, those in the center-left and center-right are not only declining to participate in polling surveys, they are no longer engaging online or showing up in the public square. As the center withdraws from engagement, the extremes on the left and right fill the void.
With more deeply partisan people advancing while those in the center retreat, we are left with a view of a country doomed to deep division. This construct is played back by social media and national news organizations over and over again. Sadly, apparent polarization becomes part of a self-fulfilling prophecy about where the country is headed. This is compounded by the fact that most politicians base their decisions during elections and their votes while in office on polls, social media trends and citizen engagement. The result is that members of Congress may be casting a vote believing they are doing the will of the people they represent, when in reality their vote may just be reflective of a loud but engaged minority.
Many politicians are all too eager to accept the divided states of America. If citizens believe the nation is too divided to address difficult issues like immigration, health care, school safety and guns, it gives Congress an excuse to do nothing and the president, of either political party, the excuse to do what he or she wants by way of executive order.
This isn’t to suggest all that is needed in the country is a big group-hug and a kumbaya moment. America is actually at its best when it is a country of bold ideas, diverse opinions and rigorous, yet respectful, debate. America is at its worst when it succumbs to partisan rancor and rhetoric that attacks anyone who disagrees, rather than discussing the potential policy solutions at hand.
In Washington there are far more bipartisan efforts for legitimate reform than will ever be reported. Utah’s conservative Sen. Mike Lee is leading serious criminal justice reform with New Jersey’s liberal Sen. Cory Booker. Utah Rep. Mia Love’s efforts with her colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus on issues of poverty are promising. There are many other examples that show divisive partisanship can be transcended. For such solutions to be enacted, citizens must believe these efforts are plausible.25 comments on this story
In the end, Americans should reject the notion that they are too divided to deal with the difficult issues of the time. Rather than buying into the polarization narrative, citizens should instead talk to their neighbors, engage in community dialogue, participate in a poll and have respectful conversations with people from different backgrounds or experience. If those on the center-left and center-right retreat and refuse to engage, America will be divided by default.
The polarized few should never determine the destiny of the nation. Engaging in the conversation and the political process is the key to overcoming the perception of dissensus among the American people. Even simple acts like taking a survey, engaging online or showing up for a town hall can help ensure that the voice of the people is accurately reflected in the public square.