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“It’s no longer just Republican vs, Democrat, or liberal vs. conservative. It’s the 1% vs. the 99%, rural vs. urban, white men against the world. Climate doubters clash with believers. Bathrooms have become battlefields, borders are battle lines. Sex and race, faith and ethnicity … the melting pot seems to be boiling over.”
That’s how “Divided America,” a multimedia series from the Associated Press, begins. Released in the months before Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, it flatly stated that Americans “are more divided than ever.”
But is that true?
It’s certainly the conventional wisdom, and there’s plenty to support that argument because extremists on both sides are increasingly active.
On the far right, the ADL found that white supremacist propaganda, often pushing the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, reached historic highs in 2021. The Southern Poverty Law Center has also documented the rise of neo-Nazi and other racist movements in the U.S. Extremist groups on the right, including QAnon, the Proud Boys, the Patriot Front, and the Groyper Army have regularly thrust themselves into the forefront of American political debate. Some members of Congress have actively supported some of these groups, and former President Trump generally seemed to prefer having multiple root canals than to definitively denounce them.
On the far left, a November 2021 report from the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University warns that anarchists and violent extremists “have the potential to escalate the frequency and lethality of violence” in the immediate future. While not a formalized group, Antifa adherents have rioted and attacked government offices, and the Antifa ideology stands accused of antisemitism. While not violent, organized socialist organizations in the U.S. reject many of the principles that most Americans consider essential to their political and economic system. The platform of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has members in Congress, says the U.S. “is no democracy at all,” and wants to get rid of the Senate. It also calls for the “abolition of capitalism,” “popular control of resources and production,” and the “nationalization of businesses.”
The divide among some Americans is also plain to see in the reaction to many news events on social media and in the national media, including the never-ending bitter debates and sermons we hear on cable news. A National Bureau of Economic Research study published last fall shows that political polarization in the U.S. has risen more rapidly than in other industrialized nations. A Pew Research survey released soon after the 2020 election found an “increasingly stark disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on the economy, racial justice, climate change, law enforcement, international engagement, and other issues.”
What About American Moderates?
The AP’s “Divided America” and a FiveThirtyEight opinion piece published in 2019 titled “The Moderate Middle Is a Myth” are among those who argue that there is not much of center in American politics and that moderates are so diverse in their opinions that they are irrelevant as a group. The FiveThirtyEight piece contended that American voters who identify themselves as moderate, independent, and centrist form a “murky middle” that is so ideologically diverse that “there is no simple policy solution that will appeal to all of them.”
That’s right. Nothing will appeal to every single person in the American center, but that’s an awfully high standard.
The truth is that a strong current of mainstream thought does flow through much of the U.S. and the great majority of Americans live in that ideological space.
Gallup’s survey of Americans’ ideological views in 2021, released in January of this year, found that a moderate plurality exists, with 37% of U.S. adults describing their political views as moderate, while 36% identified as conservative and 24% liberal.
However, when you look at the parties themselves, you see strong evidence that moderates go beyond a simple plurality and represent an absolute majority of the American electorate. Gallup’s poll also shows how the two major parties are not monoliths. Almost half of Democrats (49%) describe themselves as moderate or conservative. Among Republicans, 26% say they are moderate or liberal.
A Pew Research survey released in January 2022 further confirmed that, finding that many partisans say their own party is too extreme in its positions. That was true for 43% of Republicans and 46% of Democrats. Another Gallup poll in 2021 found that 62% of U.S. adults say the "parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed." That’s an all-time high.
So, well over 4-in-10 Democrats and Republicans think that their respective party is too extreme. Then you have to add in independents. And there are more of those than there are partisans.
In the most recent Gallup party affiliation survey for March 2022, 40% of Americans identified as independents, easily exceeding those who said they were Republicans (28%) or Democrats 30%. While independents can be found anywhere on the political spectrum, it’s fair to say (as supported by Gallup’s ideological poll) that they are generally more moderate than those who identify with one of the two major parties.
Any fair interpretation of all that data leaves you with a clear conclusion: A healthy majority of the country is somewhere in the political center.
Where Do Moderates Stand on the Issues?
Looking at issues broadly, surveys indicate that Americans are trending toward being socially liberal but conservative on the economy and foreign policy.
According to the Gallup survey released in June 2021, the divide is strongest on social issues, with moderates (35%), slightly exceeding liberals (34%) and conservatives (30%). But a slight trend this century away from conservatism on social issues is evident from the Gallup graphic below.
On the other hand, American ideology on economic issues remains solidly right of center, with more people identifying themselves as conservative (41%) and moderate (34%) than liberal (25%).
Americans also trend conservative on foreign policy, at least by one significant measure. A Pew Research Center survey from 2019 shows a strong majority of all Americans (61%) believe the U.S. should maintain policies that keep the country as the world’s only military superpower. That included similarly large percentages of moderates in both parties. Still, even that is attenuated by the Pew finding that 73% of Americans believe that the best way to ensure peace is through good diplomacy, not military strength.
On individual issues, moderates can make up a majority of the American people all by themselves, or they can agree with either side.
For example, polls showed almost three-quarters of Americans believed the rioters who attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2020, were mostly threatening democracy. Only one quarter believed they were protecting it. The moderate majority obviously joined almost unanimous Democrats in condemning it.
On the other hand, almost three-quarters of Americans believed the U.S. government is not doing enough to reduce inflation or relieve disruptions in the supply chain, according to a December 2021 CNN survey. Democrats disagreed, but moderates connected with Republicans on this issue.
So, Are We More Divided Than Ever?
The extremes may be as far apart as they ever were, with he base of the Democratic Party turning more liberal and the Republican base more conservative. What Pew Research Center’s “Political Typology” calls “Faith and Flag Conservatives” will almost never agree with what it refers to as the “Progressive Left.”
Making matters worse, the voices from each base are often the loudest in the room, and their divisive rhetoric echoes loudly throughout Washington and cable TV. The power of each party’s base is also demonstrated in primaries, which too frequently lead to the election of polarizing politicians. To succeed politically, candidates are forced to appeal to the most ideological voters.
Still, politicians ignore moderates at their own peril.
As I set forth above, the numbers don’t lie. However, even if you don’t accept my argument that moderates constitute the majority of the American electorate, they are unquestionably the swing voters who decide national elections and determine popular support for specific issues.
Moderates have generally succeeded at preventing the country from straying too far right or left, to the benefit of all Americans. I’m sure they will continue to do that, despite the doomsayers.
And don’t underestimate the power of the moderate majority. It may speak softly, but it carries a big stick at the ballot box.
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Cover photo: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) (5th L) speaks as (L-R) Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) listen during a news conference after a procedural vote for the bipartisan infrastructure framework at Dirksen Senate Office Building on July 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C. President Joe Biden signed the more than $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan into law on November 15, 2021. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)