Gridlock in Washington D.C. may begin at home on Washington Street
Write to the Point
We have met the enemy and they are us.
I’m not sure who said that, or even if it’s an actual quote. But when it comes to why there is such a huge inability to form a governing consensus among lawmakers in our nation’s Capitol, we might want to look no closer than the image in the bathroom mirror.
According to a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press report released June 12, the number of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled in the last 20 years from 10 percent to 21 percent. The nationwide survey of 10,013 adults conducted Jan. 23-March 16 also showed less of an ideological overlap between the two parties, with 92 percent of Republicans to the right of the median Democrat and 94 percent of Democrats to the left of median Republicans. In 1994, those percentages were 64 and 70 respectively.
The survey indicated these divisions are the greatest among those most engaged and active in the political process. These are people more likely to attend party meetings, write letters to the editor, donate and campaign for party candidates.
The widening split has led to a shrinking of the political center, with 39 percent currently taking a roughly equal number of liberal and conservative positions. That figure was 49 percent in 1994 and 2004.
The polarization has also led to a growing dislike between the parties. To be sure, there’s always been some form of aversion between Democrats and Republicans, but not to the extent that party differences are perceived as threats.
When asked the question “Would you say the party’s policies are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being, or wouldn’t you go that far,” 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans saw the other party’s policies as a threat. Among those consistently adhering to party ideology, 66 percent of consistently conservative and 50 percent of consistently liberal said the other side’s policies jeopardized the nation.
This polarization is also pushing people into “ideological silos.” Conservatives are more likely to exhibit partisan behavior in their personal lives and more likely to prefer living with friends and in communities of like-minded people. More liberals than conservatives (76 percent vs. 20 percent) think it is important to live in communities with racial and ethnic diversity while more conservatives than liberals (57 percent vs. 17 percent) attach importance to living in a community where people share their religious faith.
While most said they wanted to live close to extended family and high-quality schools, 75 percent of the consistently conservative preferred to live in communities with houses that are larger and further apart and schools, stores and restaurants several miles away. On the other hand, 77 percent of those consistently liberal preferred smaller homes closer together with schools, stores and restaurants nearby.
As might be expected, these divisions have led to different ideas about compromise. When it comes to the ideal agreement between President Obama and congressional Republicans, 57 percent of consistent conservatives feel the GOP should hold out for more of their goals while 62 percent of consistent liberals want the agreement closer to Obama’s position.
There is some hope, as the report states all or even most Americans do not share these sentiments. Most are not uniformly conservative or liberal, see either party as a threat and believe government should meet halfway to resolve issues.
“Yet many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process,” the report authors wrote.
Reasons for these ideological shifts will be the subject of upcoming Pew reports. I’m betting the media has a role to play, especially talk radio, the Internet and other forms of partisan bombast.
For now, if anything, the degree of polarization among the electorate should serve as a wake up call to those in the center to get off the couch, and away from the soccer game, and vote.
John McCallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.