Americans Agree More Than They Realize
An exaggerated emphasis on differences obscures the degree to which Americans still agree
Some days, it can seem as if half the country has come down with rabies. A lot of people seem willing to tear your head off over the smallest thing.
Part of it probably comes from the disinhibiting effect of social media—where the lack of filters or personal contact makes it easy to fire off a nasty personal attack in the heat of the moment… which only encourages people to respond in kind.
Part of it probably comes from the fact that Americans increasingly sort themselves into like-minded communities. That means they're less apt to get to know people who think differently, and therefore less likely to understand where they're coming from.
Part of it might be attribution error: I cut you off in traffic because I'm late for a meeting; you cut me off in traffic because you're a big fat jerk. I support my candidate because I've studied the issues; you support yours because the candidate lied to you and you bought it.
Part of the reason also could be simple weariness. Many people these days might be suffering from what addiction specialist Abraham Twerski has called "emotional sunburn." A physical sunburn makes you hypersensitive to minor physical affronts, such as getting bumped in an elevator. An emotional sunburn works the same way with other kinds of affronts.
And part of it also probably has to do with the fact that both parties have grown more extreme in recent years. Congressional Republicans certainly have. Congressional Democrats tend to be more moderate, relatively speaking. But among the public at large, "the overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades," the Pew Research Center reported three years ago. A more recent study from earlier this month produced similar results.
Left and right are pulling further and further apart. Both sides look at the other and wonder, "What in God's name is wrong with those jerks?"
Many media outlets only make matters worse. Take a look at The Daily Caller or The Huffington Post—watch a late-night comic or tune into cable "news"—and you will be presented with an endless litany of outrages committed by Those Awful People.
This is, unfortunately, a successful business model. It works because it ratifies the viewers' existing prejudices and makes them feel superior. Nothing like a little dopamine squirt to brighten your day.
But this exaggerated emphasis on differences obscures the degree to which Americans still agree. And on some topics, the public is of one mind, or as close to that as you can get. A few examples:
Universal background checks. Nine out of 10 Americans think a background check should be required for every firearm purchase. That includes three-fourths of all NRA members.
Dreamers. These are undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children, grew up here, and have little or no connection to their countries of origin. Eighty-five percent of Americans agree that they should not be deported.
Civil asset forfeiture. This practice allows the police to confiscate property—cash, cars, homes—from people they suspect might be involved in criminal activity, even if the individual is never even charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Across the ideological spectrum, 84 percent of Americans disapprove of the practice.
Medical marijuana. Eighty-three percent of Americans agree that doctors should be able to prescribe cannabis for their patients.
Extremist bigotry. Eighty-three percent of Americans think it's unacceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white-supremacist views. Nine percent think it's OK, and 8 percent aren't sure (!).
Sanctuary cities. In contrast to attitudes on Dreamers, 80 percent of American voters disapprove of sanctuary cities and agree that local authorities should report illegal immigrants to federal authorities.
On other questions Americans are less united, but still lopsided. For instance:
Handgun ban: 76 percent of Americans oppose one.
Euthanasia: 73 percent favor allowing doctors to help patients who want to die do so.
Alternative energy: 73 percent of Americans want energy policy to favor alternatives over oil and gas.
Gay marriage. Pew finds that 62 percent of Americans support letting same-sex couples wed, up from 42 percent just seven years ago.
The point here isn't that these widely held views are the correct ones. A show of hands does not make slavery or lynching right, and much social progress entails convincing the majority of the public to change its mind.
Also worth noting: Polls aren't perfect. They're snapshots, and they can be manipulated. ("Americans Overwhelmingly Support Wearing Bow Ties, Finds New Poll Sponsored by Bow Tie Manufacturers Association.")
Still, for people tired of constant snark and contrived controversy, it might be comforting to know that in many ways America is not nearly so divided as it's sometimes made out to be. Maybe that guy who cut you off in traffic is just running late. And maybe, despite his annoying bumper-sticker, the two of you actually agree on quite a bit.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.