Hitting on what has become one of the Beltway media's favorite narratives of 2014, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza this week bemoaned the fact that increased polarization within the electorate, fueled by spiraling partisanship, means “we are increasingly moving toward two entirely separate Americas, a liberal one and a conservative one.” According to the writer, we're two separate, stubborn nations unwilling to communicate or compromise.
This type of analysis has been repeated often in recent weeks, in part because of an influential Pew Research study that fueled a larger media discussion about polarization. But this focus on polarization misses the larger point and lets the GOP off the hook. Especially when you look at the polling on crucial issues facing the nation; issues President Obama has tried to get Congress to act on for years.
The Democratic president's been met with an unprecedented brand of Republican obstructionism, which the press has often been too timid to name. Rather than call the malady what it is, media now embrace claims of cultural “polarization” to explain away the radical GOP streak.
The press throws up its hands and announces the whole situation is hopeless: Americans are so divided there's no way anything can get done in Washington because gridlocked politicians simply mirror the voters' disdain for compromise. But by throwing up their hands, journalists basically absolve Republicans for adopting their radical say-no strategy, while ignoring the fact that there exists agreement among voters on a wide range of pressing issues.
Immigration reform, climate change, war, extended unemployment benefits, minimum wage, and tighter gun laws are all part of a laundry list of issues where a working majority of Americans agree. Meaning, Obama enjoys widespread support for many of the tenets of his legislative agenda, but Republicans block everything in Congress. (“Legislative constipation,” is how Vanity Fair's James Wolcott describes it.) The press, decrying gridlock without adequately assigning blame, insists that as a country we're deeply, deeply divided, and that's why nothing gets done in Washington.
But we're not.
The “polarized” push received lots of fuel last month in the form a Pew Research poll that indicated more Americans see themselves as ideological, and fewer of them want to interact with their partisan foes politically, or even socially. The survey produced lots of hand-wringing coverage, bemoaning the sad state of our partisan electorate:
“Pew Poll: In Polarized America, We Live As We Vote” [Washington Post]
“America Is More Polarized Than Ever - And It's Hurting The Country” [Business Insider]
“Polarization Is Dividing American Society, Not Just Politics” [New York Times]
“Hard-Core, Hardheaded, Hateful Partisans Are Crowding Out Our Politics” [National Journal]
Do deep divides persist in America? Of course, and they always will. But when you dig a little deeper, issue-based polling results are often startling in terms of the lopsided agreement that exists on key topics, like the fact that 90 percent of Americans supported a background check gun bill Obama tried to get passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook School shooting massacre in Connecticut. Yet Republicans in Congress refused to allow a vote. (Fact: 91 percent of senate Republicans moved to block the bill.)
Or the fact 72 percent of even registered Republican voters in Rep. Eric Cantor's Congressional district support immigration reform that's languished in Washington; reform that House leaders have refused to vote on.
Look at these one-sided findings from just a single Quinnipiac poll published this month, regarding the supposedly divisive issues of guns, war, and global warming [emphasis added]:
* “American voters support 92 - 7 percent, including 92 - 6 percent among gun owners, requiring background checks for all gun buyers.”
* “The 2003 war in Iraq was the wrong thing to do, American voters say 61 - 32 percent.”
* “Voters support 58 - 30 percent federal government actions to limit greenhouse gases from existing power plants to reduce global warming.”
The examples of Americans being united in heated agreement during Obama's second term have been numerous:
* 83 percent want to “either lower student loan interest rates, or keep them at current levels.”
* 81 percent think obesity is a big problem in society.
* 79 percent call for immigration reforms.
* 75 percent agreed with Obama's 2011 decision to withdrawal U.S. troops from Iraq.
* 71 percent support raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25.
* 69 percent agree that global warming represents a “serious problem facing this country.”
* 69 percent favor extending long-term unemployment insurance.
Yet Republicans, who lost the White House in 2012 and lost seats in both houses of Congress, have blocked all attempts by the White House to address those issues.
And note there are additional topics where a clear, catapulting movement towards a strong consensus is underway:
* 55 percent support gay marriage (up 15 points in five years).
* 55 percent favor legalizing marijuana (up 20 points in six years).
So no, America isn't made up of a cauldron of partisans who engage is endless trench warfare. On issue after issue there's plenty of broad agreement. Republicans ignore that for political purposes. What's the media's excuse?