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Less Divided than We Look

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Are we becoming a more polarized people, as a new and important study from the Pew Research Center seems to demonstrate? In spite of the hype surrounding this new research, I argue that the public is not as polarized as a cursory reading of the Pew study would suggest.

Certainly, this research reflects an important problem, but that problem is less about the public and more about our political system.

The vast majority of participants in the research (about 8 in 10) do not actually fit Pew's definition of ideological polarization. Further, as Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina explains in an excellent analysis of the research, the methodology used -- forcing respondents to choose between two dichotomies -- leads to a result that can exaggerate the ideological consistency of respondents.

Fiorina also examines the wider body of public opinion toward specific policy issues. He finds that most Americans are not either/or thinkers. Rather, they see merits in various points of view and are open to compromise.

In a related vein, a new public opinion analysis from the organization Voice of the People finds "remarkably little difference between the views of people who live in red (Republican) districts or states, and those who live in blue (Democratic) districts or states on questions about what policies the government should pursue."

Certainly, there is some evidence in the Pew research of a hardening of positions among the ideologically minded, and we don't deny that there are important disagreements among the American public. Still, this evidence does illustrate that common ground is not only attainable but, on many counts, already exists.

Even among those who take an ideological stance toward Beltway politics, many are much more pragmatic and open to compromise when it comes to local issues.

I say this with the confidence of 20 years facilitating conversations around the country with everyday Americans from across the political spectrum. During these discussions, there will often be a handful of participants who come off, at first, as rigidly partisan, voicing talk-radio-like rhetoric. But this rhetoric is almost always superficial and falls away quickly. When the conversation digs into concrete local issues such as improving schools or making streets safer, these participants become much more flexible and less dogmatic.

The Way Forward

There is indeed a serious problem of political polarization, but its source is not the American public. Rather, political parties have realigned and are much more consistently partisan than they've been in our lifetime. Activists on both ends of the ideological spectrum are much more influential via primaries and campaign donations than are average citizens. And media coverage generally reinforces what is most conflicted about our politics. All of this adds up to a highly polarized and dysfunctional national politics.

How then can we make progress?

Fortunately, there's a lot we can do at the local level - and we don't have to wait for national politics to get its act together to do so. Broad-based public engagement can support and even drive local progress on a host of issues that people care about and are willing to work together on. When it comes to education reform, jobs, climate change, public safety and a host of other concrete challenges, we can and should get on with it locally.

In fact, metropolitan regions are already getting it done, and have become the locus for progress on public policy issues.

On matters of national policy, however, we still have some work to do before we can make real progress on difficult challenges like immigration reform or climate change. First, we need to work through the tricky issues that are making effective problem solving practically impossible.

Unfortunately, we can't expect current office-holders on the national stage to fix things like money in politics or partisan and distorting gerrymandering; they've thrived in the current system and are therefore unlikely to champion needed reform. And in any event, they can't get anything done!

Instead, some form of people power will be necessary to drive reforms that enable us to collaborate and solve national problems rather than fragment, polarize and sink into stalemate.

Citizens must mobilize to demand practical, bipartisan progress on the issues that challenge our future as a nation. Those who fight for such progress must be rewarded at the ballot box and those who undermine it must be punished. Support must build for measures that protect our national politics from interest group and partisan manipulation.

Helping the public come to terms with these prerequisites for national progress is among the central political projects of our time. The Pew study does nothing to dissuade us from this fundamental point. Rather, now more than ever, we should get to work.