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Cepeda: The myth of a polarized America

By Esther Cepeda

The Washington Post

First Published Jul 03 2014 07:54 am • Last Updated Jul 03 2014 10:47 am

Chicago • America is growing more polarized — or so we’ve read in what seems like a zillion headlines in the weeks since the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released "Political Polarization in the American Public."

This is the report that spurred an untold number of late-night comedy show one-liners with the statistic that three out of 10 consistent conservatives and about a quarter of across-the-board liberals say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married someone who identified with the opposite political party.

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The report’s prospect of a Hatfields-and-McCoys-tinged future has inspired much soul-searching. But not everyone believes the hysteria is warranted.

Matthew Dickinson, writing in Politico Magazine, chastised headline readers for not diving below the bold type to find Pew’s own summary that "these sentiments are not shared by all — or even most — Americans. The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views."

On both The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog and NPR’s "On the Media," Morris Fiorina, a Stanford political scientist and author of the book "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America," balked.

"Polarization in common parlance means people moving toward the extremes. That’s really not what’s happening and not what the Pew report showed," Fiorina said on NPR. "What it reflects, really, is the sorting out of the two political parties in the United States — the people are becoming more consistent in their views."

Further, in his blog post, Fiorina notes: "If one thinks about polarization in ideological terms, one would expect to see a decline in moderates and an increase in liberals and conservatives. But the General Social Survey reports that the distribution of ideology in the United State has been stable since the early 1970s. With occasional small exceptions, ‘moderate’ remains the modal category today just as it was in the days of Jimmy Carter."

According to Fiorina, the reason we all feel like we’re more polarized is because we are bathed in partisan media, blogs and elite "shout show" echo chambers that do a terrible job of reflecting the moderation with which most Americans generally approach politics and life.

"The problem is, the public face of politics in America is driven by a tiny unrepresentative extreme slice of the population," Fiorina told "On the Media." "It does give a perception [of widespread political polarization] that is damaging."

His theory is also fleshed out in "The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility" by Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj. The authors write:

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"Outrage-based media may limit our willingness to engage in political conversations with people who do not share our worldview, bruise our openness to others’ perspectives when we do talk with them, and, perhaps most ironically, leave us valorizing a new ideal that privileges passionate argumentation and devalues contributions that are more ideologically neutral. When evaluating political opinion media with democratic metrics it is important to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality: most U.S. opinion media are not designed to yield the best possible political deliberation. Instead, most political opinion media are governed by economic imperatives."

Thankfully, reality finds us enjoying the findings of a January 2014 Gallup poll, which put the number of political independents at 42 percent of Americans — "the highest Gallup has measured since it began conducting interviews by telephone 25 years ago."

Even Pew’s own report notes that most of us are even-keeled.

"When Americans look at the political battles between President Obama and Republicans in Congress, they tend to say both sides should meet in the middle. ... This view holds across party lines," the report says. "While some Democrats would prefer to see Obama get more of what he wants in negotiations with Republicans, 46 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners say the ideal outcome is 50/50. Exactly half of Republicans and Republican-leaners agree that splitting the difference is the right end result."

Think about this when your gun-hating, open-borders, pro-union cousin comes over for the annual Fourth of July barbecue and starts meandering toward the topic of politics with your gun-loving, small-government, slightly homophobic uncle.

The very fact that your family has lived and prospered despite such a diverse set of opinions proves Pew’s assessment that "most Americans are comfortable with political diversity in their households."

But if you hear the word "Obamacare," just be ready to intervene with more potato salad.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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