Polarization? Consensus? Compromise? Nonsense

Both the estimable Bill Galston today and Wall Street Journal veteran political reporter Gerald Seib yesterday are making much of last week’s ABC News/Washington Post poll that finds a large jump in the number of people who say they prefer candidates who seek “consensus” and “compromise” over “sticking to principles.” The number who say “compromise” over “principle” has risen from 34 percent in 2010 to 50 percent today. Naturally this is taken as a sign that voters are turning away from “polarization,” and are disgusted with a “gridlocked” Congress. It is an implicit rebuke to the Tea Party, because as we know liberals are never intransigent about anything.

But before “No Labels” and other transgendered transpartisan enthusiasts get their hopes up, it ought to be pointed out that the polls showing Congress with approval ratings in the single digits probably represent the salient feature of our polarized time that each party (and their independent “leaners”) blame the other party for gridlock and lack of compromise, and when you add those together, you get a 90 percent disapproval rating for Congress.  That’s one reason why people tend to approve of their own House member or Senator while disapproving of Congress as a whole.

It wasn’t always so, you say? Yes, but that was back in the day before every aspect of life was turned into a national political issue. Or put another way, the increase in polarization and bitter political fights is directly proportional to the growth of the federal government. This is highly uncongenial to liberals, for whom ever-expanding federal government is religion. And most quantitative political scientists avoid studying this because it is uncongenial to their biases. But it was predicted in a 1960 book that is still regarded as a classic in politics science, E.E. Schattschneider’s The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America.

Then finally let me stick in the usual caveats about attitude polling and public ignorance. And maybe the best way of making this point is to share this short bit from Elaine Kamarck’s splendid little book How Change Happens—Or Doesn’t (Kamarck was one of those smart moderate liberal DLC types in the 1990s, now a Harvard professor, natch):

In 1978 the political scientist George Bishop and his colleagues at the University of Cincinnati conducted a very important poll of adults in Cincinnati. They asked the following question: “Some people say that the 1975 Public Affairs Act should be repealed. Do you agree or disagree?” When the question was asked without what the authors referred to as a “filter” (a sentence giving the respondent an excuse to say that they didn’t know or care) one-third of the sample had an opinion on the question, and of those opinion was split 15.6 percent in agreed and 17.6 percent disagreed. Several years later, in 1995, the Washington Post conducted a second poll on the 1975 Public Affairs Act and whether or not it should be repealed. This time the pollsters asked respondents to agree or disagree with a very specific statement: “President Clinton has said the 1975 Public Affairs Act should be repealed.” This time 43 percent of the public expressed an opinion with Democrats supporting repeal and Republicans opposing it.

Punch line: There is no 1975 Public Affairs Act.

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