Issue 100 • Week of December 17, 2023
Congressional ideologies between the two major parties have drifted further apart than at any time measured during the past 50 years. There are only two dozen moderates left out of over 500 senators and representatives despite that more than 50% of Americans now have very unfavorable views of the opposing party (compared to only 20% in 1994).
Compromise is increasingly elusive, as seen by the House enacting less than 4% of the legislation brought to the floor for a vote this year. Three of the 27 new bills addressed commemorative coins, the naming of a single clinic, and electronic hunting licenses – hardly priorities for most voters.
Three quarters of adults believe the press is largely responsible for this polarization, as the media landscape has changed drastically over the last generation. Most cities previously had at least two competing major newspapers to maintain equilibrium. We had three commercial TV networks and PBS to choose from for broadcast news, their coverage was relatively balanced in part due to the Fairness Doctrine until 1987 (however flawed), and their stories had to be edited down to fit an hour every night. There was little room or appetite for extreme editorials, so Americans did not need the same level of media literacy that is required today.
Bipartisan views on more than 10 broad issues were relatively close as late as 2003. They have since diverged after cable news bias grew drastically in an attempt to differentiate, fill 24 hours of airtime everyday, and compete with new Internet habits. Their nonstop coverage driven by a new hunger for profit fueled decades of partisan media that has changed people's attitudes.
Polls are important barometers of public opinion. Yet the ease with which to conduct them now allow media companies to create their own talking points more cost-effectively than traditional investigative journalism. Newsrooms may spend $300,000 and six months or more to do deep dives, while national surveys are available much sooner at 1/10th the cost. Plus, some pollsters tweak questions toward desired outcomes or bury the findings if respondents do not align with the opinions of the editorial board.
The resulting horse race journalism has decreased trust or credibility in all politicians – especially female and third party candidates – as well as news outlets themselves.
However, since this formula has been profitable, media consolidation has subsequently made the problem worse. New owners pressure once-independent local TV anchors to parrot the same line nationally. Hyper-partisan candidates receive 4x as much press coverage as problem solvers. The filter bubble is then reinforced online by clickbait headlines and social media algorithms that profit off of user engagement.
Once media outlets have framed the Overton window, polarization in government is all but assured by our extremely low voter turnout in primaries thanks in part to gerrymandering. More than 80% of general election results are effectively determined by only 8% of voters which encourages candidates to play to the party faithful rather than moderates. Extreme voices are then further amplified once in office by the same non-stop news cycle.
It's no wonder that an overwhelming majority think that debate has become less respectful and more than half of Americans believe partisan conflicts receive too much attention. The more that people follow the news or post to social media, the wider their perception gap between reality and what they estimate others think.
Only 11% of adults blame ordinary people for the divisiveness in our society, but the consequences of this simmering pot are starting to boil.
Nearly 80% of Americans believe we have too little confidence in each other which 70% think impedes our ability to overcome our problems. We have survived a lack of faith in institutions before with a shared sense of skepticism or even humor at gridlock. However, our more recent breakdown of trust between individuals underlies a growing sense of animosity and sectarianism. A full 40% think that civil war is possible within the next decade.
The reality is that people have much more in common than politicians say or the media report; a recent study identified nearly 150 topics that majorities of both parties agree upon. Over the past two years, Surmountable has presented 100 issues each with 5 non-partisan goals and 12 actions that individuals can take. That amounts to 500 opportunities to cooperate and 1,200 ways for Americans to make a difference.
Our challenge is that harmony is rarely promoted in campaigning and seldom considered newsworthy.