Americans have this very popular notion that we really don’t agree on anything politically.
Such a notion is so pervasive that to suggest otherwise seems like a bit of a fairy tale. Americans of each party look upon the other with ever-increasing antipathy – so much so that almost ⅓ of party voters see the other party as a threat to the nation.
Congress also shows real evidence of no longer agreeing on anything at all:
All this looks incredibly dire. The most tempting conclusion to draw, of course, is that Americans disagree on more than they ever have before. In each party, we’re very much encouraged to propagate such a belief.
But America has a dirty secret that party leaders and media outlets don’t want you to know: as a country, we have broad agreement among issues that seem intractable and completely split. Let’s look at a few of the most seemingly-polarized examples: abortion and guns.
When polled whether they are “pro life” or “pro choice,” Americans have been split nearly 50-50 for 20 years.
But it turns out these distinctions, while not totally meaningless, tell us very little about one’s political positions on abortion.
For example, when we ask Americans to state their political preferences about abortion restriction timelines, 85% are willing to choose either 20 or 24 weeks as a cut-off. Only 8% insisted that abortion should be always or never legal, regardless of timeline.
We also know from repeated polling that consistently, over 80% of Americans want abortion to be legal but with some restrictions. It’s about 10% each that never want any restrictions at all, and about 10% that never want to allow abortion at all. Between is a wide spectrum of varied and often conflicting views about timetables, exceptions, parental notifications, etc.
This spectrum and nuance allows for discussion and an attempt to seek understanding, where the labels of “pro life” and “pro choice”–which seem to have very little to do with one’s policy preferences at all–do not.
We see a similar seemingly wide gap between “gun control” advocates and “gun freedom” advocates when we ask broad questions about guns. In this case, about 50% of Americans consistently want stricter gun control laws, and about 50% either want them kept as they are or scaled back.
Such a question paints us as fiercely pitted against each other, but it is deceptive. Within the incredible complexity of what the many gun control laws entail, how many people are really going to be simply “for more” or “for less?”
It turns out that when you ask people about specific policy questions, not only do their views become more nuanced, but we can see a broad amount of agreement among Americans.
For the majority of these common gun control concepts, Americans have 80% or more agreement. On other questions like high-capacity clips, we have the potential for a productive discussion if we put aside our “pro gun control” or “pro gun freedom” labels.
Why the discord?
There are a lot of policy questions about which Americans have a lot of different ideas. In this way, disagreement is a great thing: it means many ideas come to the table to “duke it out” in the hearts and minds of the country.
But why do we think that some disagreement means we have little or nothing in common with people of the other party?
There are folks that have a strong interest in you believing you have nothing to agree on with the other party: namely, politicians.
The most consistent and reliable voters are those who are most consistently conservative or liberal. So politicians running for election actually have a political incentive in order to transform us from being more moderate to being more extreme, as we become more valuable to them.
They’ve gotten good at it.
These incentives are very powerful and can’t be fixed by pleas or demands for bipartisanship or civility. We have to undermine these forces at their root.
In the “illuminating” and “powerful” new book Wedged, Erik Fogg and Nathaniel Greene uncover these forces and provide concrete steps for Americans to identify when they are being manipulated into supporting partisan extremes, and how to help themselves and others fight back.