Americans Don't Disagree That Much on the Issues—But Don't Expect That to Matter


Red vs. blue

If there's a nasty storm brewing outside, and a bunch of my friends settle on takeout from Subway to satisfy their hunger, there's no doubt that we have a majority preference for sandwiches for dinner. But they're likely to end up with Pad Thai anyway, if I'm the only one motivated enough to get up and head out into the elements for the vittles. That's because I prefer Thai food and I can be a bit of a dick about these things. That's what comes to mind as I read the good-government group Voice of the People's (VOP) announcement that a "new study 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."

There may be a lot of general agreement on the issues, but that isn't going to matter very much if the meeting of minds isn't shared by those who are actually driven to participate in the business of influencing government and making policy. The study, A Not So Divided America, also assumes a bipolar ideological world, which isn't necessarily the case, even in a two-party system.

To find the degree of policy agreement among Americans, VOP selected 388 questions from 24 different surveys that broke respondents down by state and/or congressional district.

Comparing the views of people who live in red Congressional districts or states to those of people who live in blue Congressional districts or states, across 388 questions, majorities or pluralities took opposing positions in about one out of thirty cases (just 3.6 percent of the time). In two out of three cases there were no statistical differences.

VOP did find red/blue divides at the state and district level on some hot button issues like abortion, gay marriage, and gun rights. Majorities differed when asked in broad terms about those issues, There was, however, quite a bit of agreement on specific policy proposals, such as permitting concealed-carry permits, abortions in cases of rape, and civil unions.

VOP also found wide agreement on spending priorities, taxes, health care reform…

But, there's a catch.

In cases where two basic responses were offered respondents (e.g. favor vs. oppose) but they were also offered intensity options (e.g. very or somewhat), the intensity variations were collapsed for each basic response.

Here's where we get to, "what do you guys want for dinner?" Americans in general may well be in general agreement if you call them on the phone and badger them into answering a few questions. But the country's political decision-making isn't driven by the rule of "meh"—it's driven by those with sufficiently intense feelings to commit time, money, and energy to win their way on specific issues. That means the guy willing to go out into the storm ultimately has more say over the choice between sandwiches and Pad Thai than the folks with a weak preference and a spot on the sofa.

VOP would likely say that's the problem—the organization was founded as an objection to partisan politics. But how do you make the voices of people with weak preferences on any given issue equal to those of the highly motivated? And should you really try, given that those with more intense feelings usually have some skin in the game and may well take the time to become better-informed about the issues?

VOP also makes the common American assumption that there are two and only two "camps" to be examined, and crowds everybody into them.

To compare responses in red districts/states and blue districts/states, each poll question had to be treated in a binary fashion. This was self-evident in the many cases in which the poll question offered the respondent two possible structured responses. However, other variants had to be adapted to a binary analysis.

True, this is a two-party system, but those parties are factionalized and red vs. blue can cover a world of differences, like the gulfs between Rand Paul and John McCain, or Jared Polis and Dianne Feinstein. Tribal affiliations aside, is a "red" district in Alabama really comparable to one in Arizona? A blue one in Massachusetts necessarily the same as one in New Mexico?

That said, there is likely more national agreement on many issues—from guns, to taxes, to marijuana—than is apparent from what goes on in the halls of Congress or on the nation's OpEd pages. But the political battles will certainly continue so long as weak agreement is offset by intense commitment—and strong tribal loyalties.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing.