Maybe Americans are not really divided

If there is one grand theory about American politics that is shared as gospel by the news media, it is that America is polarized –

If there is one grand theory about American politics that is shared as gospel by the news media, it is that America is polarized – deeply and dangerously. Red and blue America. Culture war. Fox versus MSNBC.

A number of social scientists aren’t convinced of the truth of this account. Appropriately, the social scientists are divided. 

No sane person denies that the political elite in America is polarized – and obnoxious about it. That elite would include politicians, their handlers, party activists, primary voters, the partisan media and its loyal readers and viewers.

The debate is about the other 80 percent or so of the country, people who pay only episodic attention to politics, who have moderate or just very eclectic views, who dislike both parties, most politicians, most of the media and most of our political culture.

We expect to pay a lot of attention to this debate at DecodeDC. Any reporter who covers politics can’t help but describe the bitter polarization of Congress and the parties almost daily. But we need to bend over backwards not to assume the world outside the Beltway is similarly at odds. And we’ll try to keep track of the political scientists and sociologists who ponder such things

Full disclosure: For years I have been writing that I don’t buy the polarization thesis. It gets harder and harder with each passing Senate cloture vote to maintain that position. Mark me down as newly agnostic.

An interesting addition to the anti-polarization camp (the Purple Team?) comes from Wayne Baker, a sociologist at the University of Michigan. His book is called United America.

Although the book is based on public opinion research, it isn’t an academic book so much as a call to action and a discussion guide.  It would be especially useful to teachers. While it might be tough-going for people looking for tight arguments, it is a useful look at the big things we have in common rather that the smaller things we fight over.

Baker’s notion is that Americans share broad but deeply held civic values. Common ground is obscured by the attention to divisive specific issues such as abortion, gay rights or gun control. These are often referred to as wedge issues.

A polarization-industrial complex (my term, not his) in politics and the media exploits every fracture for fun and profit.  But Americans share a view of society much as we always have and we compare favorably to other countries in that regard.

The values Baker sites are very broad, like “respect for others,” “pursuit of happiness,” and “self-reliance and individualism.”  These may be so broad that critics will simply say they’re useless because everyone would support them. They are not, however, values that would be widely shared in other, less democratic and tolerant cultures.

It is important to recognize just how much common moral thinking there is in a geographically and ethnically diverse country of 300 million. And it is worth remembering that issues are not values and politics is but one measure of what can divide and unite communities.

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