Esquire-NBC Survey: American Politics is Divided, but America is Not

It has become a sort of self-evident truth that America is deeply and irremediably divided into the conservative right and the liberal left. Pretty much everyone believes this, and most people think that gap is widening. But according to an Esquire-NBC survey, America is not as divided as our political partisanship would indicate. In fact, the majority of Americans actually believe the same thing when it comes down to it.

Assuming the survey actually paints an accurate picture of the average American, I think there are a few reasons for the disparity between the survey and the common perception—why practical solidarity appears like political division.

First, perceived division is the tool politicians use to legitimize their rule. If the truth were out, and people realized that politicians on the left and the right want basically the same things in practice, the myth of choice that so many people still believe in would lose its potency. Right now, it’s as if most Americans are watching the political equivalent of a professional wrestling match, but they still believe that Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage actually have a real beef with each other. So they root for their favorite without realizing that the whole thing is a sham. Politics would lose a great deal of its luster if we realized just how staged it is. So the mainstream media outlets (of both flavors), largely fall in step with the political agenda, selling the American public on the reality of the divide. This makes financial sense as well. News thrives on conflict and controversy. If there isn’t a real controversy available, the media make one up.

But the second reason for the disconnect between how we are and how we perceive ourselves is the fact that most Americans don’t actually believe what they think they do. If the Esquire-NBC survey had focused on ideology rather than policy, they would have come up with the opposite result. Most of the questions they asked had to do with actual policy: legalization of gay marriage and marijuana, offshore drilling, and the death penalty. Though “the American Center” agrees on policy issues, they don’t describe themselves by the same terms. As NBC’s write up of the survey says:

The people of the new American center aren’t united by easy labels. Some are Republicans (28 percent). Others are Democrats (36 percent). Still others are Independents (36 percent). The people of the center self-describe as liberals (20 percent), conservatives (25 percent), moderates (55 percent) — and 15 percent support the Tea Party.

In other words, according to the Esquire-NBC poll, most Americans agree on policy but they describe their policies with different ideological labels and probably believe they have irreconcilable political differences with their neighbors. They may argue over ideas, but, when the rubber meets the road, they all want basically the same things.

This just restates the conclusion of a landmark 1967 study The Political Beliefs of Americans. Things weren’t apparently that different then:

The paradox of a large majority of Americans qualifying as operational liberals while at the same time a majority hold to a conservative ideology has been repeatedly emphasized in this study. We have described this state of affairs as mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behavior. But the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms …

This is most troubling for the conservative movement. It is not good enough for us to say we believe the right things if, in practice, we vote and live just like our purported opponents. And the Esquire-NBC survey, and other studies like it, indicate that is exactly what is happening. If we are truly going to effect any change in this country, it is not our well-stated ideological platform that needs revamping. No, the real problem is that we are ideological hypocrites. We need a change of affections and a change of actions. We need to start living out the principles we say we believe.