“A Not So Divided America” – but is it wise?

A new study of 24 major surveys in the U.S. shows clearly that partisan gridlock in Washington DC is not the result of partisan disagreements over policy out in the districts and states that are supposedly represented in Congress. If elected public officials heeded the expressed policy preferences of their constituents, bipartisan policies would be readily formulated on more than 2/3 of the issues facing the nation. That, in itself, is remarkable. But I suggest that high quality public deliberation that produces “public judgment” could create even better policies and broader agreements. I then invite the reader to explore how and why we should make such public judgments wise, so that public policy generates longterm broad benefits and a flourishing future.

A new study reveals “a not so divided America”.

Just last Thursday I learned of this study, which I think is unique in analyzing public polling questions not just about people’s general responses to issues, but about specific public policy proposals. The researchers delved into 388 questions from 24 major surveys done between 2008-2013. These particular polls were chosen for the study because they included data about the state or district where each respondent lived, which could then be identified as primarily liberal or conservative.

The researchers found “remarkably little difference between the views of people who live in red (Republican) districts or states, and those who live in blue (Democratic) districts or states… Most people living in red districts/states disagreed with most people in blue districts/states on only four percent of the questions… For a large majority of questions – 69 percent – there were no statistically significant differences between the views in the red districts/states and the blue districts/states.”

Well!! What a surprise! You’d never know it from the sounds emanating from Congress and the pundits!

The study – entitled “A Not So Divided America” – “contradicts the conventional wisdom that the political gridlock between Democrats and Republicans in Congress arises from deep disagreements over policy among the general public.” The researchers conclude that something else must be driving the polarization in Congress, but they don’t venture a guess about what that might be. I suspect most of us believe monied special interests play a significant role.

Although this isn’t the first time pollsters have noted a level of agreement among Americans, it may be the most rigorous effort to explore the level of agreement about specific policies across the supposed Left/Right divide. (For my own take on that divide, see “A Personally Transformational Encounter of Left and Right”.)


This study is a victory for transpartisanship. It makes a strong case that polarization is not a given in our political landscape, but arises from dysfunctions in our political system and toxic efforts by those who manipulate the system for their partisan and special-interest purposes. That is a powerful insight, and one well worth exploring.

But I want to highlight another aspect of this fascinating study. I want to invite you to consider whether the policies the public seems to agree on are actually the kind of wise policies we really need. To help you explore that, I’ve listed the policy options that this research found bipartisan public agreement on regarding five major issues – climate change, abortion, gun control, health care, and taxation. (I also list the 29 other issues about which such information is also available in the report’s appendix, with link provided.) I invite you to scan over the policy options below and think about your own understanding of these issues and how well you think the public addresses them. I suspect you will agree with many of the policies recommended, disagree with some others, and also feel that most of them do not go far enough. I suspect that will be true whether you think of yourself as a liberal or a conservative or something else.

Once you’ve done that, I invite you to imagine what might result from a group of one or two dozen very diverse (randomly selected) citizens taking a week or more to actually study one of these issues in detail, talking with experts and partisans across the political spectrum and – most importantly – talking with each other to find the highest level of agreed common sense they can articulate about what should be done with that issue. Consider how they might shift in their views if they actually did such thorough explorations with each other.

The result of such study and deliberation would be what democracy theorist Frances Moore Lappé and pollster Daniel Yankelovich call “public judgment” – what we get when diverse people get informed about an issue, when they really hear each other’s views and values, when they seriously reflect on likely outcomes and tradeoffs, and when take real responsibility for their conclusions, individually and collectively. See my article “A Call to Move Beyond Public Opinion to Public Judgment” for more on public judgment.

So while public OPINION – as represented in the poll responses below – involves whatever opinions people happen to have when surveyed, public JUDGMENT involves actual study, reflection, and interaction with their fellow citizens. I find it fascinating that in many cases there is so much agreement before that interaction even begins. It makes me wonder if survey data might be included in the briefing materials given to citizen deliberators, with an invitation to improve on what their fellow citizens apparently believe.

But the idea of public judgment opens the door to an even higher level of public engagement with the great issues of our day – PUBLIC WISDOM. The standard I set for wise public policy in my book EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM is that it must generate long term broad benefit. The chances are slim that mere public opinion will favor wise public policy, especially in our currently disreputable political and informational environment. Our current public discourse is remarkable in how much of what needs to be taken into account is ignored, sidelined, distorted and/or actively suppressed.

Public judgment COULD favor wise public policy, depending largely on what kind of information, perspectives, and options the citizen deliberators are exposed to and engaged with. Are they helped to think systemically – that is, with real understanding of the way different aspects of the issue interact with each other and with other issues and parts of reality? Are they helped to think about what might happen over the long-term, especially as the initial consequences of their decisions impact the rest of society and nature, generating new impacts that weren’t visible at first? Will the seventh generation after them be happy with their choices? Are they willing to entertain major shifts in the social systems and culture they live in, if they find that certain taken-for-granted aspects of those systems and that culture are generating the problems or crises they are addressing? How well are they able to weigh difficult trade-offs between their lifestyle now and the lifestyles available to their grandchildren’s children, or to people in other countries, or to the organisms and natural systems with which we share this finite planet? These are the kind of questions that call forth wisdom.


it is harder to be thoughtful than to be opinionated. And it is harder to be wise than to be merely thoughtful. Today we are dealing with issues and crises that could make or break the ability of future generations to live decent lives. Doesn’t it behoove us to see what we can do to enhance the capacity of We the People to democratically generate public policies that are wise enough to really benefit the generations after us? What would it take to be successful at that?

Now that it is clear that the divisions among us as people are neither as big as we thought nor as carved in stone, what could we do to bring about a broad level of understanding and agreement regarding the truly wise things we could and should now be doing so that our world can flourish in the future?

Blessings on this Journey, among all the rest…


PS: We should keep in mind that this study compares predominantly Democratic and Republican DISTRICTS or STATES. The gap between the responses of INDIVIDUAL Republicans and Democrats, considered collectively, would probably be larger. Every state or district contains Democrats, Republicans, Independents and others. The collective opinions of those who are not part of the dominant party in a particular state or district would tend to moderate the collective views of the dominant party.

Despite this moderating influence, we should keep in mind that Congresspeople and Senators represents districts and states, not individuals. So the conclusion of the study – that polarization among Democrats and Republicans in Congress does not reflect polarization among the districts and states – is still valid. (Note also that the group doing the research is associated with an effort to develop an official citizen consultation network for Congresspeople called Voice Of the People Campaign for a Citizen Cabinet which would be organized by Congressional District.)

For an intriguing study of “red” and “blue” counties in the 2012 election – which turn out to be mostly various shades of “purple”, or a combination of the two – see this map.



From Steven Kull – skull at VOP.ORG

A new study conducted by NCDD members at Voice of the People and the Program for Public Consultation finds remarkably little difference between the views of people who live in red (Republican) districts or states, and those who live in blue (Democratic) districts or states on questions about what policies the government should pursue. The study analyzed 388 questions asking what the government should do in regard to a wide range of policy issues and found that that most people living in red districts/states disagreed with most people in blue districts/states on only four percent of the questions.

The study titled, “A Not So Divided America,” contradicts the conventional wisdom that the political gridlock between Democrats and Republicans in Congress arises from deep disagreements over policy among the general public.

The study analyzed questions from dozens of surveys from numerous sources including the National Election Studies, Pew, major media outlets, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs as well as the Program for Public Consultation. Responses were analyzed based on whether the respondents lived in red or blue districts or states.

• On only four percent of the questions (14 out of 388) did a majority or plurality of those living in red congressional districts/states disagree with the majority or plurality in the blue districts/states.
• For a large majority of questions – 69 percent – (266 of 388), there were no statistically significant differences between the views in the red districts/states and the blue districts/states.
• For 23 percent, or 90 questions, there were statistically significant differences in the size of the majority or plurality, but the dominant position in both the red and blue districts/states was on the same side of the issue.
• Thus for 92 percent of questions people in red and blue districts and states basically agreed.

The full study can be found at:


The report’s appendix with the survey questions analyzed can be found at:


= = = =


Remarkable levels of agreement exist between Republican and Democratic regions on the following policy options covering five major public issues. For all of these policies, polls showed a shared majority or plurality with either no significant difference in percentages or the same dominant view held but at different magnitudes by Republican and Democratic regions. (Note that in the Appendix exact percentages for each question are provided, as is a reference for the poll from which the data was taken.)


If global warming were to happen, that would be a bad thing
Agree that the problem of climate change should be given priority even if it causes slower economic growth and loss of jobs
Protection of the environment should be given priority even at the risk of curbing economic growth, rather than prioritizing economic growth even if the environment would suffer
The problem of climate change should be addressed and US should at least take low-cost gradual steps to deal with it
US does have a responsibility to take steps to deal w/climate change
Government is not doing enough to deal with the problem of climate change
US should be willing to limit GHGs, if other countries agree to Copenhagen agreement
To deal with climate change, favor preserving and expanding forests even if there is less land for agriculture or construction
Favor increasing fuel efficiency, even if the cost of cars and buses is higher
Favor federal government requiring automakers to build cars that use less gas
Favor reducing government subsidies that favor private transportation, even if this increases its cost
Favor federal government lowering the amount of greenhouse gases power plants are allowed to emit
It will be necessary for US to increase costs of energy to encourage individuals & businesses to conserve more or use alternative forms of energy
Respondent willing to pay $19.50/month (0.5% of GDP per capita) in higher costs for energy and other products to deal with the problem of climate change
Not willing to pay 1% ($39/month) to deal with problem of climate change
If less developed countries agree to limit their greenhouse gases, US and other developed countries should provide them with substantial aid to help them do so
Favor maintaining or increasing funding for research and development into alternative fuels and energy efficiency
Favor maintaining or increasing spending to EPA for pollution control
Favor reducing funds for Department of Interior oversight of public lands (livestock grazing, mining, drilling, solar energy, wildlife protection, firefighting)
Limiting climate change is an important goal for US foreign policy
US should participate in climate change treaty
There should be an international institution that monitors whether countries are meeting their treaty obligations to limit their emissions
US would still have a responsibility to take steps to deal with climate change even if other countries don’t agree to Copenhagen treaty
Favor limiting the rate of constructing coal-fired power plants
Oppose increasing gas taxes so people drive less or buy cars that use less gas
US is doing either the right amount or too much in dealing with the problem of climate change
Oppose the US ending its contribution to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for research on climate change


Abortion should be legal in at least some cases
Oppose having the government end funding of Planned Parenthood
Oppose prohibiting tax deduction for private insurance plans that cover abortions
Abortion should be legal if pregnancy would result in death of the woman
Abortion should be legal if woman was raped
Abortion should be legal if fetus would be born with serious birth defects
Abortion should be legal if pregnancy would hurt health of woman at all
Government should not be involved in trying to discourage abortions
A woman should have the Constitutional right to decide to terminate a pregnancy in the first few months of her pregnancy
Abortion should not be legal for the purpose of sex selection
Abortion should not be legal for the purpose of avoiding financial burden


Favor background checks for all gun purchases
Favor national database for all gun purchases
Federal government should be allowed to ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons, even if it violates the rights of gun owners
Oppose more teachers and school officials carrying guns at school
Gun laws should be more restrictive than they are now
Oppose making handguns illegal to own at home
To protect the Constitutional rights of gun owners, state and local governments shouldn’t be allowed to ban handguns and concealed weapons, even in high crime areas.
Favor giving permits to carry concealed handguns to applicants with no criminal record who pass a gun safety test.


Healthcare is a right, not a privilege
The government needs to take major steps to reform the American health care system
Oppose having the government provide health care services directly to all Americans who want it
Waste, fraud and abuse can be cut from the healthcare system while still giving people the treatment they need
Favor a government-provided public option that would compete with private insurance plans
Favor public option if limited to only those who cannot get insurance through their employers
Favor requiring all but smallest businesses to provide health insurance [the employer mandate]
Favor tort reform to regulate malpractice suits against doctors and hospitals
Favor changing rules to allow people to purchase insurance across state lines
Favor preventing health insurance companies from discriminating against people who have pre-existing conditions
Favor government paying for drugs for low income seniors
Favor preventing health insurance companies from rescinding sick people’s healthcare for minor errors they made in filling out their applications
Oppose increasing cost of insurance premiums for young military retirees
Favor changing medical insurance so that military families pay a typical copay
Believed the individual Health care mandate was not constitutional [asked before Supreme Court 2012 decision]
Government should be responsible for ensuring health care needs of its citizens
Government should increase spending on Health care
Providing universal health care is an important factor for US competitiveness in global economy
Favor government paying for all necessary medical care for everyone


Favor raising taxes on Individual incomes $75,000 to $100,000
Favor raising taxes on Individual incomes $100,000 to $200,000
Favor raising taxes on Individual incomes $200,000 to $500,000
Favor raising taxes on Individual incomes $500,000 to $1,000,000
Favor increasing taxes on sugary drinks
Favor increasing taxes on Alcohol
Favor a carbon tax
Favor charging a bank crisis fee
Oppose a national sales or VAT-style tax
Favor raising taxes on people with incomes of more than $200,000
Let Bush tax cuts expire for at least those making more than $250,000
Favor extending payroll tax holiday for another year
Oppose cutting top corporate tax rate
Favor either maintaining the estate tax at 2009 rates or increasing rates
Favor slowing the growth of tax-exempt allowances for food and housing for military families
Favor payroll tax cut for employers
Oppose renewing extension of unemployment insurance benefits
To pay for payroll tax holiday, raise personal income taxes on those making more than $1 Million
Oppose raising taxes on Individual incomes $30,000 to $40,000
Oppose raising taxes for individual incomes $40,000 to $50,000
Favor raising taxes on Individual incomes over $1 million
Favor raising the average tax rate on corporate profits
Favor taxing ‘carried interest’ income as ordinary income

Here are the other issues for which such information is available in the report’s Appendix:


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