Congress, egged on by the polar extremes, is out of step with the rest of us | Michael Smerconish
After several tough weeks of political news, it can feel like America is inexorably divided. Good news: Were not.
It's been a rough few weeks for our national psyche. The trifecta of a contentious Kavanaugh fight, a pipe bomber who targeted victims based on partisanship, and a murderous anti-Semite has saddened and sapped the nation of its energy. It's enough to make a casual observer think America is inexorably divided. But that would be the wrong conclusion. There is actually positive political news around us, if only we would appreciate and draw strength from it. Consider four recent data sets:
The exhausted majority
First, just days before a Florida loner began mailing explosive devices, the not-for-profit group More in Common USA released a study called Hidden Tribes. It was based on an 8,000 person survey and potentially represents the largest examination ever of America's polarized landscape. Here's the conclusion: While our nation is becoming increasingly diverse, a relatively small, outspoken, politically-active group of voters at the far ends of the aisle are the ones dividing us. Their loud voices – representing a combined total of just 14 percent of us – are nevertheless controlling our political discourse.
On the hard left there are 8 percent of Americans, four in five of whom are white. They are well-educated, frequently vote, cheerlead for their party's campaigns, and stay active on social media. It's pretty much the same, except for viewpoint, with the 6 percent of people on the hard right.
The rest of us have allowed our debate to be controlled by these warring extremes. According to the survey, about 67 percent of us comprise an "exhausted majority," unrepresented by the polar opposites and desirous of something other than the status quo. Among the majority, there is agreement even on hot-button issues.
Take immigration. Three quarters of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, or those brought illegally to the U.S. as children, if they attend college or join the military. Additionally, four out of five Americans believe that "political correctness has gone too far in America," and 81 percent agree that racism is at least somewhat of a problem in the U.S.
Polarization of elected officials
You'd never know there was so much unity among Americans by looking at our leaders, as evidenced in data set No. 2. While the Senate was consumed with partisan rancor over the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, a Michigan State University professor of psychology and global urban studies published a study that revealed that polarization among elected officials is at a modern all-time high and cannot get any higher. No surprise, you are probably thinking. This analysis was published in the journal Social Networks.
Zachary Neal examined political networks among all members of the House and Senate. Specifically, he studied sponsorship of bills introduced in Congress between 1973 and 2016. He found that while thousands of bills are introduced each year, the average member of Congress co-sponsors only about 200. And what usually determines what they will cosponsor? Not the subject matter, but the party affiliation of the proposer.
"The polarization that we're seeing today is not driven simply by members of the same party wanting to work with each other, it's now also driven by an active avoidance of bipartisan collaboration, something I might call strong polarization. It's gotten worse in every year since the 1970s," Neal told me.
Average Americans no more polarized than before
But just like the polar extremes who have commandeered the exhausted majority, these partisan politicians are not representative of the rest of us, as evidenced in data set No. 3, the 2017 book: "Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting and Political Stalemate" by Stanford's Morris Fiorina. Fiorina found that despite how things appear in the news, average Americans are no more politically divided now than we were in the 1970s.
The typical Democratic or Republican voter has not adopted more extreme ideological views. Instead, it's the parties and the politicians that are more polarized and have sorted into narrow groups that don't represent the whole of us.
Sadly, what many have done is to think worse of the other side. It's become personal, not issue-driven.
Growth of Independents
No wonder, then, what is revealed in data set No. 4, the latest monthly survey by Gallup, which found that while those identifying as Republican or Democrat is in decline, the number of Independents continues to grow. According to Gallup, 26 percent of Americans say they are Republicans, 27 percent say they are Democrats, but 44 percent say they are Independents.
Yes, there is political division in the nation — too much of it! But Congress – egged on by the polar extremes — is out of step with the rest of us. That's the good news.