Unpolarized

Steve Chapman has an interesting article over at Reason arguing that the country is not polarized at it seems:

Here’s a solution to that problem: Stop watching cable TV news channels and listening to politicians. Using them as a gauge of how divided we are is like using the National Hockey League to estimate the level of violence in America.

Most Americans aren’t rabid liberals or fanatical conservatives. Gallup recently found that more people call themselves conservative than liberal or moderate. But other polls contradict it. According to a 2008 survey by the National Opinion Research Center, when you give them more options—extremely liberal, liberal, slightly liberal, moderate, slightly conservative, conservative, or extremely conservative—you find that the largest ideological group is moderates, with 37.3 percent compared to 34.5 percent for the three conservative groups combined.

Add up the moderates and those who are only slightly liberal or slightly conservative and those who don’t know—those clustered in the middle of the road—and you’ve got about two-thirds of the citizenry. As political scientists Morris Fiorina of Stanford’s Hoover Institution and Samuel Abrams of Harvard put it, “the American electorate in 2008 is much better described as centrist than polarized.”

Read the whole thing. I agree, to some extent. I think the American people feel a lot more polarized than they actually are. I know many conservatives, for example, who are routinely hyperventilating about how socialist Obama is and how about he’s destroying this country. And I know many liberal who thought Bush was a fascist.

But that hysteria is a product of warped perception. In reality, if you were to take the parties out of it and just ask people about issues, you would find that our political divisions are not nearly that deep. The problem is that conservative, in particular are being fed a steady diet of right populist talk show bullshit from jerks who have a vested interest in making things feel a lot worse than they are. I can’t stand to watch/listen to them anymore. When Hannity or Limbaugh or Beck or anyone comes on the radio (or liberal talking heads, for that matter), I change the station. I’m getting tired of having my emotions played with. I’m getting tired of being told that everytime Obama does something dumb, it’s because of some vast communist conspiracy or his hatred of America. I’m getting tired of being told that everyone who objects to Obama’s policies is a racist monster. As Ta-Nehisi recently said:

I find that listening to political operatives to be unrevealing. They’re always selling. It’s why I can’t watch cable news. It’s like watching two used car salesmen fight it out on MILF Island. How’s that for mixed metaphors.

That’s a perfect metaphor. I don’t feel like I’m watching political debates any more; I’m watching a bad episode of reality TV. It has the appearance of reality, but it’s all staged and contrived. Everything is exaggerated to the nth degree; small problems became major ones; major problems become earth-shattering calamities. Obama just bowed to the Japanese Emperor. He shouldn’t have. But to listen to the punditsphere, you would think he burned the American flag.

Our politicians, unfortunately, are playing right along with this game. I recently plotted out the distribution of various political ranking systems — you know, those ones that claims “Senators Schmickiebick is the 9th most liberal members of Congress”. I expected to see the Gaussian distribution I would probably get if I polled Americans.

Instead, it was bimodal. You had one tall peak at one extreme liberal end and a tall peak at one extreme conservative end. In between, there were only a handful of McCains and Liebermans and Hagels.

But that’s not the way America thinks. If we really were that polarized, opinion polls would never change. Instead, the opinion of the majority constantly shifted and changes. Healthcare, for example, will vary in support over time from 60% to 40%. That only happens if America is a much more moderate country than we think. No polarized conservative would ever support healthcare; no polarized liberal would oppose it. Only moderates can change their minds like that.

Our politics are polarized. Our commentariat is crazy. But the nation, apart from a small percentage, are fine.

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