America Isn't As Polarized As You Think It Is

The myth of America's political divide needs to die.
Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wait as media leave a meeting in the Oval Office on Dec. 11.
Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wait as media leave a meeting in the Oval Office on Dec. 11.

It’s true. During the holidays, Americans (current White House occupant aside) tend to be kinder, more civil, more accommodating. They catch the “holiday spirit.”

Some might ask: Why can’t our politics reflect that holiday spirit all year long? Why does it seem to get more and more polarized?

Political polarization is often misunderstood to be the result of politicians failing to play nice with each other ― or failing to compromise ― or even outrageous Trumpian rhetoric (which does exacerbate the problem).

Over a decade ago, I attended a bipartisan “civility retreat” with my wife ― Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) ― and other members of Congress. People were very nice to each other. What’s more, in social settings, the members of Congress from both parties are still really nice to each other today. But none of that has mattered as our country has become more and more sharply divided. And a study by a group of political scientists shows us why no amount of “civility training” will do the trick.

In 2006, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal concluded that “political polarization closely parallels measures of economic inequality and of immigration for much of the twentieth century.” They found that:

Income inequality falls from 1947 through 1957 and then bounces up and down until 1969. After 1969, income inequality increases every two years, with a couple of slight interruptions. Polarization bounces at a low level until 1977 and thereafter follows an unbroken upward trajectory.

This should come as no surprise. It’s common sense that if vast numbers of ordinary people don’t benefit from a growing economy, they come to believe that the decisions of elites aren’t benefiting them. Polarization in economic well-being leads to the polarization of self-interest and reduces the opportunity for common ground, for a shared vision of the country’s future.

On the other hand, the economic polarization of America has not divided the country into two roughly equal groups of haves and have-nots. In fact, virtually all of the 48 percent growth in per-capita gross domestic product of the last 30 years has gone to the top 1 percent, and the wages of most ordinary people have been stagnant.

Why, then, hasn’t that led to a growing consensus among most Americans that change is necessary?

The answer is that it has. On virtually every issue area, most Americans embrace progressive positions and the need for policies that would reduce economic inequality. It is simply a myth that the country is divided in two.

The American Prospect cites polls conducted by Gallup, Pew and other major polling firms:

  • 82 percent of Americans think wealthy people have too much power and influence in Washington.

  • 78 percent of likely voters support stronger rules and enforcement for the financial industry.

  • 82 percent of Americans think economic inequality is a “very big” (48 percent) or “moderately big” (34 percent) problem.

  • 76 percent believe the wealthiest Americans should pay higher taxes.

  • 87 percent of Americans say it is critical to preserve Social Security, even if it means increasing Social Security taxes paid by the wealthy.

  • 61 percent of Americans ― including 42 percent of Republicans ― approve of labor unions.

  • 78 percent of likely voters favor establishing a national fund that offers all workers 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

According to a CNBC poll, 70 percent of Americans support Medicare for All.

In three of the last four presidential elections, a majority of Americans have voted for Democratic candidates. On the national level, the same is true of the overall vote for recent House and Senate races.

That sounds a lot more like political consensus than political polarization. And at the level of ordinary people, there is a clear, emerging progressive consensus. So why are our politics still so polarized? Two major reasons.

First, McCarthy, Poole and Rosenthal point out that the increasing concentration of economic power in the hands of a few tends to make matters worse. It provides massive economic resources to the very rich and big corporations that then enable them to manipulate the political process into generating policies even more favorable to themselves. With just a small portion of their massive wealth, they can massively influence the process ― with outcomes like last year’s Trump tax bill that gave billions to the ultrarich and corporations.

That wealth has also enabled them to block or undo many pro-democracy initiatives and to organize in states to control the redistricting process. The resulting gerrymandering, coupled with the Senate, the most inherently undemocratic parliamentary body in the Western world, have done a lot to further skew political power toward the wealthy few.

Second, throughout the country’s history, many wealthy political actors have used the same “straw man” argument to hold on to power and divert the attention of a segment of ordinary working people away from real solutions. That “straw man” is immigration.

Not surprisingly, then, McCarthy, Poole and Rosenthal’s data indicates that the other major variable that correlates with political polarization appears to be levels of immigration, which ― especially in periods of high income inequality ― provides politicians who support the status quo with a ready culprit. Immigrants of all kinds become the scapegoat to explain the wage stagnation of the majority of the population, rather than the fact that the wealthy are taking a higher and higher share of our national wealth.

Two lessons then also emerge from this body of data:

First, the electorate ― taken as a whole ― is not so polarized after all. The vast majority support progressive solutions. This is true even when it comes to immigration. A Harvard-Harris poll found 73 percent of the population supports “comprehensive immigration reform.” And a CNN poll found that 83 percent want to protect Dreamers, the young immigrants brought to the country as children.

Second, if we want to do something to actually end political polarization in government, we need to ensure that this majority consensus is reflected in our politics ― that action is taken both to concretely reduce income inequality and to pass comprehensive immigration reform. And if we truly do want to reduce the flow of desperate migrants to our borders, we also have to get serious about reducing the poverty, violence and tyranny that exists in places like Central America.

It is entirely possible that over the next three years, progressives will have the opportunity to do these things.

But to succeed, we must take advantage of the massive progressive mobilization that the Donald Trump presidency has inspired. We must devote our energy not just to the ever-so-important presidential election in 2020, but up and down the ticket in every state.

Success requires that in the next Congress ― and in legislatures across the country ― Democrats offer and pass the bold progressive solutions that are supported by the vast majority of Americans, act to get big money out of politics and end gerrymandering.

And it requires candidates in 2020 who will unapologetically champion those bold progressive solutions.

If we do those things, Trump may not just be remembered as the most misogynistic, bigoted, unqualified, dangerous president in modern political history. He will also be remembered as the president who inspired the wave of mobilization that yielded the most progressive period in modern American history and ended the structural causes of polarization in our politics.

It turns out that what is necessary to end political polarization is not milquetoast compromises with the political right. It is standing up straight and fighting with everything we have to make American policy come into alignment with the views of ordinary Americans.

Or to paraphrase the old Catholic Worker slogan, if we want political peace, we must work for justice.

Robert Creamer is a longtime political organizer and strategist, and author of the book Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win. He is a partner with Democracy Partners. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.