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OPINION: Americans have common sense, but too many politicians lack it

By Lee Hamilton

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There is a widely shared belief about the current state of U.S. politics. It runs like this: We live in highly polarized times, with Americans engaging in extreme behavior and, all too often, indulging anti-democratic sentiment and behavior. Political moderation has all but disappeared.

But a pair of recent studies makes clear that this is phrased wrong. It’s not “Americans” who are embracing extremism and anti-democratic conduct. It’s some American politicians. On the whole, these studies suggest, they are out of step with the vast majority of their constituents, who are quite happy with political moderation and crave common-sense approaches from their elected representatives.

The first of these studies came along last fall, when the Carnegie Endowment published a paper by longtime democracy researcher Rachel Kleinfeld, “Polarization, Democracy, and Political Violence in the United States: What the Research Says.” “Americans are not as ideologically polarized as they believe themselves to be,” she wrote — but noted that even if there’s plenty of common ground, the activists tend not to see it. “Most partisans hold major misbeliefs about the other party’s preferences that lead them to think there is far less shared policy belief,” she added. “In other words, the people who are most involved in civic and political life hold the least-accurate views of the other side’s beliefs.”

The result, she argued to Governing magazine after the study was published, is that political-party leaders tend to see much less room for steps required to make democracy work, like compromise and negotiation. “Most people think Americans of different parties hold radically different views, and that’s not true,” she said. “There’s a lot of overlap in what Americans from both parties think, although they differ in intensity… The real difference in viewpoints is in who we elect as leaders. Party leaders have almost no issues in common. That’s making it very difficult to govern.”

This was followed in mid-March by a new study from the Polarization Research Lab, which is a collaboration among researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, and Stanford University. Over the course of 13 months in 2022-23, they surveyed more than 45,000 Republicans and Democrats on their attitudes toward such violations of democratic behavior as cutting polling stations in areas where the other party is popular, showing more loyalty to party than to election rules and the Constitution, or believing that elected officials of one’s own party should ignore court decisions issued by judges who were appointed by a president of the other party.

All of those beliefs show up among political leaders, but the researchers found that they were relatively rare among ordinary voters. Just 17.2 percent of Democrats and 21.6 percent of Republicans backed one “norm violation,” and only a relative handful in each party — 6 percent of Democrats, 9 percent of Republicans — supported two or more, which suggests that broadly held anti-democratic beliefs are quite rare.

But then the researchers did something interesting. They took a look at the Republicans they’d surveyed who lived in districts represented by members of Congress who had either voted to overturn the 2020 election results or publicly denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election results. That is where the strongest differences appeared. As one study author put it, “The real gap in support for democracy is not between Democratic and Republican voters, but between Republican voters and Republican representatives.” Yet those politicians continue to get elected.

Other studies might yield different results. But I think the basic point is a good one: There is a real difference between how party leaders and elected officials look at a problem, and how ordinary Americans do. Political leaders tend to weigh the questions they face in terms of how it affects the party or their political fortunes. Most Americans, on the other hand, don’t view challenges through the lens of party; instead, they ask themselves what would be the right or wrong thing to do for their own lives, or for the country or their community. They’re pragmatic.

I find this heartening. Because I have to believe that at some point, more Americans will get tired of being represented by people who don’t actually represent their beliefs.        


Lee Hamilton, 92, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana. 

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