Even the most optimistic observers of American politics are finding it hard to stay positive these days. It seems that no matter where you look, the headlines are increasingly grim. An NBC News poll from late August found that 74% of Americans feel the country is “on the wrong track,” while 58% now worry that our “best days are behind us.” A poll conducted by NPR in January found that 64% of Americans believe our democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing,” while a new poll from The Economist says that 40% of Americans believe a civil war is “at least somewhat likely” in the next 10 years.
While the factors underlying these perceptions are varied and diverse, there is a common theme: Many fear that Americans have simply become too divided to work together for the common good, and that as a result, the “American experiment” is doomed to fail.
But are we really as divided as everyone seems to think? Do we have so little in common that the very idea of America has become implausible? And if so, does that mean that our best days really are behind us?
I believe that the answer to all of the above is a resounding “no.” As a survey researcher at the University of South Florida, I’ve polled Floridians on a host of issues from gun rights to abortion, and from the pandemic to social media, so I’m not just basing this on a hunch, although there is a bit of that as well.
Of course, there are some stark differences of opinion among American voters. In a nation of 330 million people, how could there not be? Social media and partisan news outlets haven’t done wonders for our civility either, but we are not nearly as divided as some would have us believe.
The truth is that the “moderate majority” of American voters continue to share a common set of values, and we are in general agreement on a host of critical policy issues. For all the rumors of our demise, there is still more that unites us than divides us. And for what it’s worth, I for one firmly believe that our best days are still to come.
How could I believe all of that while so many are proclaiming the contrary? Well, I suppose like Harry Truman, “I have a deep and abiding faith in the destiny of free (people).” But more than that, I believe it because it’s what you’ve told me.
I’ve been surveying Americans — and Floridians in particular — for several years now, and I often have the privilege of sharing those findings right here in these pages. Time and again, the results (of highly representative surveys) have shown surprising levels of bipartisan agreement on even the most contentious policy issues, and they are a constant reminder that we are much more than the sum of the loudest partisan voices among us.
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Consider some examples:
1. While Democrats and Republicans have different opinions about the causes of gun violence and the fundamental right to gun ownership, a large majority in both parties support moderate and reasonable reforms that could reduce gun violence and help to make Americans safer.
2. Despite differences of opinion about the severity of climate change, most Republicans and Democrats support reasonable measures to preserve the environment, offset carbon emissions and protect endangered species.
3. Despite starkly different philosophies about government spending, nearly 90% of both Democrats and Republicans want to see political leaders work together to make the hard decisions that will reduce our national debt.
4. Elected Republicans and Democrats continue to hold very hardline positions on abortion, but most Floridians view the issue as complicated and nuanced, favoring instead a more balanced policy middle ground.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not all sunshine and roses. Both as a state and a nation we face some very real challenges, and they will need to be addressed. And although a majority of Americans seem to favor compromise and moderation, we aren’t seeing much of either these days.
Instead, the most extreme voices on both the right and the left have come to wield significant influence in our political climate, and they have far too much say over policy outcomes. Perhaps emboldened by the political indifference of the “moderate majority”, they’ve grown increasingly brazen in both their speech and their actions over recent years. But as your responses tell us time again, they do not speak for most Americans.
All of this raises a simple question: If the majority of Americans (and Floridians) favor moderate, compromise politics, then why are we so poorly represented? Why do our elected leaders look so different from the millions they purportedly represent? There’s no simple answer to that question, and political science offers more than a just few explanations. I’ll suggest a couple, though others in my field might see it differently.
For one thing, our political parties (as organizations) have grown particularly weak over the past century. Unlike many European democracies, America’s political parties have virtually no thresholds for membership and very limited barriers to candidacy for office. Case in point: Donald Trump changed his own party affiliation three times between 1999 and 2009 before deciding to run for president as a Republican.
While this may not be a problem in and of itself, our political parties have also given up most of the control they once held over the nomination of candidates, opting instead for a primary election model that they hoped would be more “democratic.”
But in reality, this approach has been the opposite. Instead, it’s resulted in overcrowded primaries that allow active and extreme factions within each party to advance fringe candidates with minority support. (Case in point, Donald Trump secured the Republican party nomination in 2016 while only winning 45% of primary votes. In fact, he didn’t win more than 50% of the votes in a single state primary until April 19th of that year, when the nomination had been all but secured.)
Today, in order to seek public office as a Democrat or Republican, candidates must first appeal to these active and extreme voters, and very few moderate compromisers can survive that process.
The political ambivalence of the “moderate majority” has also played a role. While the rest of us have been off building families, communities, businesses, and careers, the politically obsessed have been left unchecked to further radicalize American politics.
And then there’s the media landscape. While the press serves a vital and essential function in our democracy, profit motives are an ever-present and undeniable reality for privatized media outlets. Simply put, “sensationalism sells”; moderation rarely does. Consider the 2016 election, when Donald Trump’s raucous and unpredictable campaign events received nearly ubiquitous coverage. Meanwhile, more moderate and less incendiary figures like Jeb Bush struggled to have their messaging heard.
Yes, there’s more to it than that — a lot more. But no matter how you slice it, it adds up to this: today we find ourselves in a political environment that rewards personality over policy; rewards sensational disruptors over quiet problem solvers; rewards political obsession over dutiful citizenship; and rewards organized factions over unorganized majorities.
The result is that the values and beliefs of the “moderate majority” are poorly represented by our public leaders, and the problem is getting worse. But there’s good news too. The vast majority of Americans (and Floridians) still have much more in common than it seems. We still share common interests, values and goals. Most of us continue to be more practical than ideological, and despite all of the partisan noise, most of us still favor sensible policy reforms based on political compromises and good will.
Better representation won’t come easy, but it will come when we insist on it. It’s high time we did.
Stephen Neely is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida. For more information on the surveys referenced above, please visit https://www.usf.edu/arts-sciences/departments/public-affairs/about-us/faculty/sneely.aspx