AFP photo/Karen Bleier
AFP photo/Karen Bleier

The American people are “polarized.” That idea is repeated so often as an explanation for why Washington seems mired in dysfunction and gridlock that no one even stops to question it anymore.

Yes, the system is polarized, in the sense that we have divided government on the federal level, or, as Dan Balz recently noted, in the sense that state governments under an unprecedented degree of one-party control are moving in sharply different directions. But how polarized is public opinion on the issues themselves?

E.J. Dionne’s latest column notes there is majority consensus behind ideas about “economic justice” and the safety net, but that it’s obscured by the degree to which one party remains captive to a conservative minority that wants to unravel that consensus:

The current debate…persistently exaggerates how divided we are…on core questions involving social justice, we are far more united than our politics permit us to be. A survey released at the end of December by Hart Research, a Democratic polling firm, found that Americans supported extending unemployment insurance by a margin of 55 percent to 34 percent. Several recent surveys, including a Fox News poll, found that about two-thirds of Americans support an increase in the minimum wage. [...]

 

…most Americans broadly accept the New Deal consensus. We may disagree about this or that regulation or spending program. We may squabble over exactly how our approaches to policy should be updated for a new century. But there is far more agreement among the American people than there is among Washington lobbies, members of Congress or political commentators on the core proposition that government should help us through rough patches and guarantee a certain level of economic fairness…on matters of economic justice, we shouldn’t let a defective political system distract us from what we have in common.

The polling bears this out on other fronts. Majorities support immigration reform with a path to citizenship. While people tell pollsters they don’t like Big Government, they support getting our fiscal house in order through a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes, as Democrats want, and majorities oppose cuts to Social Security or Medicare. Large majorities support federal spending on infrastructure to create jobs. Majorities backed the core ideas in the American Jobs Act, which included spending on road repair and tax credits for job training, paid for by taxes on the rich.

As Jonathan Chait recently observed, there is probably a majority consensus in both houses of Congress for a broad agenda that includes infrastructure repair, immigration reform, and a long term budget deal. But as Chait notes, this is obscured by the House GOP leadership’s refusal to allow votes on things that could win a House majority but are opposed by the right flank of the party. The recent short term budget deal broke this pattern, but it may continue to assert itself on immigration, a big budget compromise with new revenues, and job creation proposals (such as infrastructure spending) that members of both parties might support. Or on gay issues, where the GOP leadership has yet to allow a vote on a measure ending anti-gay workplace discrimination that already passed the Senate, at a time when the culture is shifting in favor of gay rights.

Indeed, the frequent suggestion that the electorate is neatly “polarized” down the middle ignores the degree to which this impression has been exaggerated by an unconventional situation in the House of Representatives. As David Wasserman explained just after the 2012 elections, geographic voting distribution patterns and redistricting has created a GOP lock on the House by cossetting Republicans away in safe districts, where they enjoy the support of “an alternate universe of voters that little resembles the growing diversity of the country.” This may be reinforced by the incentives the conservative entertainment complex offers to Republicans who refuse to accommodate any part of the Obama agenda. Add it up and the stalemate in D.C. in the face of major challenges is at least partly due to this unconventional, unbalanced situation, and may be partly in spite of the state of national opinion, not because of it.

I don’t want to overstate this. On some issues, such as voter I.D. or the Keystone pipeline, the public is on the side of Republicans. On others – like abortion and climate change — public opinion seems inconclusive and divided. Some polls do show real skepticism about government in general.

And then there’s health care: Majorities disapprove of the Affordable Care Act. Here there is genuine polarization, with huge numbers of Republicans and many GOP-leaning independents favoring repeal, while major groups in the Dem coalition remain behind the law. But even this could be partly a cause of partisanship triggered by the health law and its association with its namesake. A recent New York Times poll found individual ideas within the law remain broadly popular, with even Republicans supporting the core goal of providing financial help to extend coverage to those who don’t get it through work. The bulk of the polling suggests people are ambivalent and uncertain about Obamacare, but want to give it a chance to work, and don’t support GOP scorched earth tactics against it. Perhaps there is consensus behind the idea that the health law represents the only set of viable solutions out there — Obamacare is it – and behind a hope that they will work.

In fairness, much of this is probably up in the air. The law’s future remains uncertain. Smart analysts like Ron Brownstein believe the electorate is divided into two coalitions whose visions of government may well be irreconcilable, and that failure of the ACA could tip the middle against activist government.

But pronouncements about the “polarized” electorate as the cause of stalemate seem too simplistic. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz emails me:

“While it is true that the electorate is polarized in some respects, it is important to keep in mind that polarization doesn’t mean the public is evenly divided in its support for both parties’ positions. On many important issues, including raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment benefits, raising taxes on upper income Americans as part of a deficit reduction deal, and increasing spending on education and infrastructure, substantial majorities of voters, including large numbers of Republicans, support the Democratic agenda. The gridlock in Congress is largely the result of polarization that is asymmetric.”

We need more good political science getting to the bottom of what’s really causing all the gridlock and sense that the country is hopelessly polarized.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.