Sometimes it seems the only thing Americans agree on is that we’re too polarized to agree. The term is thrown about by folks of all political stripes. Glenn Beck recently lamented, for example, that even faced with the now-documented Russian intelligence operation, “we’re far too polarized” to galvanize a response. In 2016, Pew Research reported that more than 40 percent of both Democrats and Republicans view members of the opposing party as more closed-minded and dishonest than other Americans. Sure sounds polarized to me.
But this sweeping verdict on our culture is itself a big problem. In at least five ways it impedes our understanding of what’s really going on and hinders our grasp of solutions.
1) The polarization trope hides Americans’ deep unity on matters that may count most: rules governing how our democracy makes choices. Here’s what I mean: 82 percent of us believe that the wealthy have too much influence in politics, and 85 percent want a serious overhaul of campaign finance. Imagine: more unity on these key democracy reforms than even, say, on our national passion for pro football.
Surprisingly, there is even considerable common ground on specific issues presumed to be contentious. About two-thirds of us favor tighter gun laws. Sixty-nine percent support limits on greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States as part of an international agreement. And taxes? More than six in 10 of us believe upper-income Americans do not pay enough, while 82 percent are bothered—either “some” or “a lot”—that corporations are failing to pay their fair share.
2) “Polarization” conjures up images of two nodes moving more or less equally away from their ideological centers. Yet a telling graph in Democracy in America? by professors Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens reveals a different picture. It tracks the movement of congressional Republicans and Democrats away from their ideological centers between 1975 and 2015. It turns out that the extent of each party’s movement is far from equal, as the widening gap separating the two is overwhelmingly the result of Republicans “moving sharply to the right,” the authors note.