I am an active duty officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. All views expressed in this blog are my personal views as an individual and not those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Did you know? Much more unites us than divides us

This is what I posted on Facebook last night after President Obama won re-election:
    Congratulations to Barack Obama and his supporters on a hard-fought victory. Democrats, no gloating please. Republicans, no whining please. We need leaders with the courage to compromise to find solutions to the major economic and foreign policy challenges we face.
That is, I believe, the most important sentiment for the nation right now and its most pressing need.  But I also got myself thinking.  Where might such compromise be possible?  Are we not a divided nation, as exemplified once again by a popular vote split almost exactly in half?

I believe we are divided, but our division is artificial.  I think what divides us is parties, not positions.  What I mean by that is that if you pick almost any issue you will find more of a consensus than is reflected in recent popular Presidential votes.

Consider for starters two hotly debated topics today: the role of government and gay rights. 

The role of government was a – perhaps the – defining element of the election.  It gave rise to two popular if not equivalent movements: the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.  Slim chance of a consensus on this issue, right?

Wrong.  Over the last twenty years, the Gallup organization has consistently found that a solid majority of Americans think our government does too much.  Those that think government should do more are actually a distinct minority.

Americans consistently see big government as the biggest threat to the country.

What about gay rights?  Most Americans support openly gay people being allowed to serve in the military, and have since before the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  

And while views on gay marriage are in fact split fairly evenly at this moment in history, to see it as a wedge issue is to wear blinders.  The trajectory is clear:

Not convinced?  Let’s look at two more supposedly controversial issues: health care and immigration.

Since the passage of Obamacare the country has been more or less evenly divided in support/opposition.  But delve a little deeper into the healthcare issue and you find a startling consensus on the key elements:
  • Should government ensure that everyone has health care?  Yes, 62.3% to 34.4% on average in the years 2000-2007, before the specifics (and politics) of Obamacare came into the picture.
  • Should that health care be government-run or provided by the private sector?  Even after Obamacare, private sector by a large margin: 58.5% to 36.5% over the last two years.
  • Individual mandate?  Unconstitutional, 72% to 20% before the Supreme Court decision.  As close observers will recall, the Court actually agreed that a mandate was unconstitutional but upheld the law by interpreting the non-compliance penalty (the mandate) as a tax instead.
  • Repeal Obamacare?  52% say yes in whole or in part, only 38% say leave it as is or expand it.
On immigration the story is even clearer: Americans seek a compassionate application of the rule of law for illegal immigrants and firmly support immigration as a whole.

More recently, after Obama decided over the summer to stop deporting illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, numerous polls found that two-thirds or more of the population supported that policy while less than a third opposed it.

Certainly there are issues where no definitive consensus exists now or in the recent past.  Abortion is the obvious one that comes to mind:

But as you can see, the comforting cliché is actually empirically true: there is much more that unites us than divides us.  Here are a few more issues in case you still aren’t persuaded.

Gun control: Americans oppose a handgun ban by a 73%-26% margin, though we are more evenly divided on assault weapons.  By a 60%-35% margin we believe in enforcing existing laws over passing new ones.

Education: by a more than 2-1 margin we support charter schools and by a nearly 3-1 margin we want parents to be able to “petition to remove the leadership and staff at failing schools.”  We oppose vouchers, though by a much closer margin.

How about the atrocious state of America’s balance sheet?  This is such a broad category encompassing so many politically charged issues such as taxes, entitlement programs and defense spending that you’d hardly expect to find much consensus.  Have faith.
  • What is most responsible for the deficit problem?  Too much spending: 73%; not enough tax revenue: 22%
  • How to solve it?  Focus on cutting spending: 50%; focus on raising taxes: 11%; an even mix of both: 32%.  Looked at another way, 69% of us favor both spending cuts and tax increases in some combination, only 24% want it fixed exclusively with one or the other.
  • Tax the wealthy more?  Yes, 66%-33%.
  • What spending to cut?  At first this seems to be the catch.  We narrowly oppose cutting defense (47%-51%) and are even more opposed to cutting Social Security and Medicare (42%-56%).  There is broad consensus to cut other programs, 66%-33%, but that’s less than meets the eye.  Those first three items are 50.6% of our budget and another 9% consists of mandatory interest payments on our debt.  “Other programs” seems like a cop-out that doesn’t leave much room for real reform.
  • But then comes the key: we’d rather see a compromise than have our side hold out, by a remarkable 66%-27% margin.
We.  Want.  Compromise.

True, we may be fickle as voters and punish those who sign on to a grand compromise because they gave in on some specific measure we care about.   This why I made the observation above: we need leaders with the courage to do it anyway.  What’s the worst that happens?  You have to trade your government job for a higher-paying consulting gig?

The bottom line is that on issue after specific issue, there is far more consensus in America than I think most people realize.  Perhaps it is drowned out by the “wing warriors” or the hyperventilating media, but I think the biggest reason we are divided in spite of our unity is because our two major parties split the issues.

Republicans, pressured by the Tea Party, are willing (or say they are willing) to take significant political risk to address our long-term insolvency.  They have put forward budgets that not only touch the “third-rail” entitlement programs but wrestle them with both hands, while the Democrats for three years running have been too craven to put forward a budget at all.

On the other hand, the Democrats have been willing to take traditionally risky and unpopular positions on immigration, gay rights and other social issues while the Republicans seem determined to alienate almost everyone who isn’t white, straight and married.

Granted, these are generalizations – ones that only touch on a few of the issues voters consider when picking a candidate and a party.  I haven’t even broached the subject(s) of foreign policy.  And perhaps most importantly as caveats go, consensus – even broad consensus – does not automatically equate to good policy.

But as the famed writer and Pulitzer-prize winner E. B. White suggested, democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time.  It is not an infallible system but it is, as Winston Churchill observed, “the worst form of gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

What I wish most for our democracy is that one of our parties, or a new one failing that, would take a step back from dogma and adopt positions more broadly reflective of the will of the people.  Doing so is not pandering; it does not require abandoning one's principles.  But it does require adapting them to reality.  It means modernizing the party platform to accept what previously made us uncomfortable, be it the right of gay people to fall in love and marry or the fact that we are robbing our children blind to pay for our lavish entitlement state.

Whichever party realizes this first and acts accordingly will not only win but win emphatically, and find itself governing a remarkably United States.

(All graphs and numbers come from Gallup.)

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