11/10/2012 09:54 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2013

Divided We Stand (But How Divided Are We Really?)

The long, hot election of 2012 is over and the voters have spoken: We pretty much want the same people leading us as we had before. The Washington gridlock will continue because we're more polarized than we've ever been before.

Or that's the party line in much of the media. And the "party" in this case isn't blue or red. It's the media that, whatever its orientation -- right, left, or down the middle -- can agree on one thing: We're increasingly a country of people who want to choose up sides, go to our respective corners, and throw things at one another.

But what if they're wrong? What if some of the media and the politicians we're listening to want us to look at the world through this polarized lens even if it distorts reality?

One thing is undeniable: The country is pretty evenly split. Since World War II, we've had nine terms of Republican presidents and eight terms of Democrats. The last time we elected a president by more than 55-45 was Ronald Reagan almost 30 years ago. And, we've had opposing parties controlling the White House and at least one House of Congress half again as often as we've had a single party leading us.

But the fact that we as a people are divided 50-50 doesn't tell us anything about whether we've become more polarized. We could just all be clustered around the middle of the political spectrum, with half of us slightly to the right and half of us slightly to the left.

Well, you certainly can't say that about the people we're electing to Congress. We all have the sense that Congress is increasingly extreme in its divisions, and political scientists Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams have given us the research to support our instincts in their book Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics. They compare the voting patterns of the House of Representatives in the 1961-62 term with those in the 1999-2000 term and show dramatically how members of the House have become more ideological and extreme in the way they vote. Where we used to have some moderates of both parties in the House that could get together on legislation, that overlap has almost entirely disappeared.

And it's not just our elected representatives in Washington who have become more polarized. A good portion of the media covering those representatives has gotten more and more extreme in its coverage as well. The best examples are probably Fox News and MSNBC, with Pew telling us that 71 percent of the stories on MSNBC about Romney were negative (compared with three percent positive) and 46 percent of Fox News stories on Obama were negative (compared with 6 percent positive). According to Pew, the polarization on social media has been even more pronounced.

If our politicians and our media are more and more polarized, doesn't that mean that we must be as well? After all, politicians want to get re-elected and the news media wants a big audience. That means they must be a useful barometer of what we're all thinking.

Not so fast. The powerful incentives of re-election and attracting an audience may not be enough to get our politicians and our news media to reflect us. They may even point us in the wrong direction. In politics, aggressive re-districting and nominating candidates through single party primaries, for example, have given us redder reds and bluer blues as candidates "appeal to the base." Similarly, with the move to cable television and its dependence on subscription revenues to drive profits, it's more important these days for Fox News or MSNBC to appeal to a small part of the audience that is rabid for the views it's expounding than it is for either to reach out across the aisle.

Whether it's in a gerrymandered congressional district or in the core audience of Fox News or MSNBC, what we may have seen in recent years is just grouping all the people of one particularly strong viewpoint together in one place without any individual's viewpoint actually getting any more extreme.

And there's at least some evidence that that's just what has happened. Again, according to Fiorina and Abrams, research indicates that as a country we're just about as moderate as we've ever been. Polling over the last 40 years asking us whether we self-identify as "strongly conservative," "conservative," "moderate," "liberal," or "strongly liberal" shows we're not a bit more polarized than we were when Richard Nixon was president. In truth, there's a slight indication we may think of ourselves as more moderate. Research into our views on specific, hot button issues (like abortion) tends to support this view.

What's more, the exit poll results from the election we've just had bear out the Morris & Abrams research: Of those voting, the largest block (41 percent) described themselves as moderates, compared with 35 percent conservatives and 25 percent liberals. And even the people we might expect to be most extreme in their views don't necessarily "toe the party line": 20 percent of tea party sympathizers actually voted for President Obama.

If it's the media and the politicians who are moving out toward the fringes -- not the voters -- that may help explain the outcomes of the election we've just had. Pundits on both sides of the aisle told us repeatedly how momentous the choice was before us. We were deciding whether we would have big government or small; whether we would prize individual freedom over collective action; whether we would continue the policies both parties have pursued since FDR or would set off in a new direction.

Now that it's all over, what did we really decide? We had the opportunity to reject Obamacare, and we didn't. On the other hand, we had the opportunity to give the President a free hand in pursuing large government programs, and we didn't do that either. We neither gave a mandate for raising everyone's taxes, nor did we foreclose cuts to entitlements. We collectively said to both sides that they had some good points, but that they should keep it down to a dull roar. The result of polar extremes simply squaring off against one another? Possibly. But it's at least as likely that the electorate was sending a strong message that somewhere around the center is where they want to be.

Now the time has come to address the big, serious issues that will affect all of us -- and our children- - for many years to come. The deficit. Tax policy. Entitlements. Energy and climate. Immigration. Before we let some of our politicians and media throw up our collective hands and despair over ever coming to a sensible, centrist approach, let's consider at least the possibility that that's exactly where most of our fellow countrymen are. Deeply concerned, but also deeply distrustful of both the extremes that some would put before us.

In his victory speech in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, President Obama sounded an echo of his keynote address to the Democratic Convention back in 2004, which launched him on the national stage.

We are not as divided as our politics suggest; we're not as cynical as the pundits believe; we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions; and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.

Noble sentiments that we would like to believe. But what if they're not just sentiments? What if they reflect a deeper truth about who we are and what we believe?

We can only hope.