One of American politics' most comforting nostrums is the notion that we always are united by far more than what divides us. It's a sentiment Barack Obama repeats frequently in his speeches, and both the president and California Gov. Jerry Brown are relying on it to help them move toward resolution of government's worst budgetary crisis in generations.
A comprehensive new survey of the American electorate by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, however, indicates that the most politically engaged Americans now are fundamentally opposed to compromise, divided on virtually every basic national question and separated from each other by everything from their race to the choice of where they get their news. Moreover, the increasing numbers of independents, who've theoretically pushed national politics to the center with their preference for middle-of-the-road policies, no longer are particularly moderate. California has traversed this sort of political landscape for more than a decade, and now the rest of the nation seems poised to discover that it's a difficult and discomforting place.
The nation's partisan alignment, according to Pew, now closely resembles California's: 25% of the registered voters hold views that make them "mostly Republican"; 40% incline "mostly Democratic"; and 35% are independents of various stripes.
The Republicans, according to Pew's findings, are overwhelmingly white (about 9 out of 10), devoutly and decisively Protestant (roughly 7 out of 10) and financially well off (7 of 10). The old divide between the GOP's social and economic conservatives, Pew found, has been erased. These days, to be Republican is to be equally conservative in both areas. This national realignment, the Pew analysts argue, is the most significant change in the six years since their last such survey, though it occurred in California years ago.
While a majority of the Democrats' most ideologically liberal members (16% of the electorate) are white, the party's other factions also include large percentages of upwardly mobile white immigrants, blacks and Latinos, as well as a substantial number of blue-collar whites and African Americans (together, 15% of registered voters). Nearly half of those African Americans and working-class whites "expect they will earn enough to lead the kind of life they want." They also are "socially conservative and very religious," which sets them apart from this coalition's other constituents.
Perhaps the most striking of Pew's findings is the realization that independent voters remain free of party but not of ideology, ranging from libertarians (now 10% of registered voters) to a group that, the poll says, takes "conservative positions on questions about racial policy and the social safety net" but is "very liberal on social issues." This latter bloc (14% of the electorate) is overwhelmingly white, younger than most, is not particularly religious and lives in the suburbs.
"What we see is a much bigger and increasingly diverse middle," Pew's Andrew Kohut told the Washington Post this week. "What's striking about it is that they're not so moderate. People in the middle have some strong, well-defined ideological points of view."
Americans' consumption of news and information increasingly mirrors our ideological preferences: Democrats solidly rely on CNN; Republicans on Fox News. Nearly 1 in 5 "solidly liberal" voters regularly reads the New York Times; just 1 out of 100 "staunch conservatives" does. Slightly more than 20% of the former watch "The Daily Show"; a nearly equal proportion of the latter are Glenn Beck fans. Thirty-four percent of liberals listen to NPR; less than 1 in 10 conservatives does.
Perhaps most troubling, Pew found that a majority of registered voters — and a stunning 79% of "staunch conservatives" — say they "prefer elected officials who stick to their positions over those who make compromises with people they disagree with."
For generations, historians and political analysts have identified a predilection for pragmatic problem-solving over ideology as the defining — and distinctive — characteristic of American political life. Clearly, that's a thing of the past, and with it, the impulse to bipartisanship. As we've seen in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing this week, that now extends to foreign policy too. In California, we've watched this shift away from compromise bring effective government virtually to a halt. It's not an experience we can afford to repeat on the national level.
Still, a democratic system that disdains compromise has no way forward but the brutality of simple majoritarianism. In a society as diverse and divided as ours, that path is sown with its own perils.