Americans are a people hopelessly divided by culture wars and fundamental disagreements about the role and appropriate size of government. You know this; I know this. Everyone knows this. In some parts of the country people carry machine guns through the baby products aisle and want to cut both food stamps and millionaire’s taxes, while in others we’re extending marriage equality and trying to build decent mass transit and celebrating diversity. It’s a deep, unbridgeable rift, and the dysfunction in our Congress just reflects this.
Right? Well, hold on.
What if you asked Americans in largely “red” or Republican districts, and largely “blue” or Democratic districts, very specific questions about what government should do—about taxes, reproductive rights, foreign affairs, and the like, and 96 percent of the time they agreed?
And 69 percent of the time there wasn’t even a statistically significant difference in how big the favoring majorities were in the two types of districts?
Well it turns out, that’s actually what happens.
In a fascinating study, Voice of the People, a non-partisan nonprofit focusing on giving the American people a more effective voice in the policymaking process, crunched the results of a range of polls from the last few years and added their own, and compared the responses to 388 specific policy and budgeting choices across congressional districts or states deemed “red” or “blue.”
And we’re just not that polarized when you get down to brass tacks.
In fact even on the hot-button issues that encompassed most of the 14 out of 388 questions where there was polarization, there were far more questions within those topics on which there wasn’t disagreement than questions on which there was. For example, out of 14 questions on abortion, only 2 were polarized; 1 out of 10 on gun control; 8 out of 29 on gay rights.
In areas where you might expect dramatic conflict given media coverage and political grandstanding, like health care reform, immigration, or Iraq and Afghanistan, there were no polarized questions. (Mind you, some of the majority positions are disappointing to me, but that’s a separate issue. And I’d be suspicious of the study’s breadth if that weren’t so.)
Even more pleasantly surprising, prefacing the questions with strong ideological statements calculated to remind the respondents of the usual entrenched opposing positions didn’t make a difference in how polarized their response was. That’s incredibly heartening.
Finally, I read the appendix that listed the actual responses, and this part blew me away: On the questions about taxation the differences on most questions were not statistically significant. But for the handful where the majorities agreed but the size of the majorities was statistically different, it was the red states that wanted to raise millionaire and corporate taxes and not taxes on those making under $50,000 by larger margins. As the report said, when asked to make their own federal budget, “red districts raised about the same amount of revenue from income taxes as blue districts did, but they were somewhat more inclined to seek revenue from corporate taxes and excise taxes than were blue districts.”
That’s worth repeating: In all parts of the country, a majority agrees that we should tax the rich and the corporations more, but red districts have more of an appetite for doing that than blue! Someone please tell me why this isn’t front page news everywhere.
Now clearly this isn’t going to fix Congressional dysfunction and lead to progressive taxation overnight. There are a whole lot of other influences going into this decision making, as was made clear by the recent study out of Princeton showing that economic elites and organized interest groups, primarily business, have far more influence on policy than average Americans of moderate means.
However, the idea that we are all fractiously divided and there can’t be common ground and it’s useless to try to find any is a powerful tool in the arsenal of those who do have that influence and want to keep it.
Martin Gilens, co-author of the Princeton study, said in an interview with Talking Points Memo that one of the factors that have led us into this non-democracy state is “the lack of mass organizations that represent and facilitate the voice of ordinary citizens.”
It takes significantly more activation energy to go out there and create such an organization when you believe broad swaths of the country is hopelessly unlike you and wouldn’t want any of the same things that you do. The idea that we’re really not all that divided could be a powerful dose of hope for this year’s Independence Day.
(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on July 3, 2014.)