As unhappy as Americans are with the state of our national politics, the more local their politics the less unhappy they are.
America seems more deeply divided today than at any recent period, not only between political parties but within the parties too. Since the U.S. Civil War, basically one party or another has ruled with large coalitions and little deep disagreement since both parties generally sought a wide consensus and what they enacted as policy had limited direct effect upon the populace.
The 1960s changed all that, although the remaining cultural drag of the earlier consensus delayed much of its effect: The Vietnam War and opposition to military draft, the civil rights and feminist demonstrations and activism, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Great Society anti-poverty welfare expansion, and then the reaction in urban riots, the silent majority and the election and resignation of Richard Nixon.
These events realigned the South to Republicans and the Northeast and West Coast to Democrats but no longer with persistent or large national majorities, switching party control regularly for the presidency, the Senate and even the House of Representatives after forty years of Democratic control. With deadlock in Congress and with the presidency, power moved to the Judicial branch to resolve increasingly contentious social issues, discrimination, abortion, marriage, healthcare, drugs, firearms and federalism, resulting in deep and broad division not seen since Appomattox.
The Pew Research Center has been a relatively balanced polling and reporting institution documenting these changes in public opinion, especially reporting on its imaginative but moving-target Political Typology every several years or so. Its current version opens with President Trump as the culprit for the current division and moves quickly on to highlight the resulting divisions within the right and to a lesser extent on the left. Yet, it finesses through the one thing the public is not divided upon. Two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with how things are going nationally in the U.S., and have been so for twenty years, as opposed to 75% satisfied with how things were going in their local communities, with only 24% dissatisfied.
The division is widespread: with 50% favoring incurring more debt to help the needy against 43% opposing this as fiscally irresponsible; 41% saying discrimination keeps blacks back economically and 49% saying blacks lag because of poor work habits; 51% believing in the necessity of sacrificing freedom for terrorism protection and 46% opposing; on 48% preferring a bigger government with more services against 45% preferring a smaller government and fewer services; with 43% asserting Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions and 49% not more likely; with 56% saying government is almost always wasteful and 40% disagreeing; and even 47% preferring people live in houses closer together in urban areas to assist socialization and 48% favoring houses further apart to provide more freedom.
The main focus of the study is the Center’s nine political/ideological “typologies” dividing the political parties. The first group is labeled Bystanders, citizens who do not register to vote and therefore exclude themselves from politics and so can be set aside here. Pew then sets four Democratic and four Republican groupings, with 55% of total registered voters supporting the former and 45% for the latter. The Democratic groups are: Solid Liberals, Opportunity Democrats, Disaffected Democrats, and Devout/Diverse Democrats, with each such subgroup agreeing on anti-discrimination and pro-welfare policies, and bigger government with more services policies. But they are divided on an internationalist verses a nationalistic foreign policy, on the importance of work values for success, the need for government regulation, and the importance of belief in God — with the first two groups favoring military involvement, opposing churches for their negative effects on social life, supporting regulation, and believing hard work does not pay. They are opposed on the first three issues by Opportunity and Devout Democrats and by the Opportunity Dems on the value of hard work.
Republicans are divided into Core Conservatives, Country First (Social) Conservatives, Market Skeptics and New Era Enterprisers who all: support a smaller government with fewer services, agree that government cannot afford more welfare spending, that health care is not a government responsibility, that work habits rather than discrimination are mostly responsible for black poverty, and opposing media bias, finding violence in Islam, and supporting churches and opposing abortion. They disagree on whether: free trade helps the economy, markets are fair, deferring to allies should moderate U.S. national interests, and immigration is a drag on employment. Core conservatives take the affirmative side on all four of these items while Social conservatives dissent on the fairness of trade, Market Skeptics say markets are unfair, and Enterprisers disagree by supporting an allies-oriented foreign policy and are pro-immigration.
Both political parties therefore agree on core values but have substantial disagreements too. With a majority of voters and a solid consensus ever since the New Deal on welfare state spending, Democrats would seem to have the more promising future. Indeed, three of the four GOP groups support many of those programs too. Yet, led by Liberals who Pew shows dominate their party’s activism and leadership (as do Core Conservatives for the right) the party has moved from an economic to a cultural policy emphasis — supporting abortion (64%), viewing churches as negative forces (48%) and colleges (84%) and media (57%) as positive in supporting their beliefs — with Core Conservatives supporting the opposite by 69, 74, 80, and 95 percent.
These dynamics provided the opening for Donald Trump’s election and suggest a potential long-term Democratic problem from Devout Democrats, especially its white majority, whose change in support would give Republicans a majority among registered voters. Indeed, the Devout group not only fits Core opinion on moral issues but most other GOP groups also, reinforced by more frequent church attendance. Devouts even support some economic issues such as believing government regulation does more harm than good and holding a positive view of banks, surprisingly given that they are the least wealthy and lowest employed of the typology groups.
Devouts have a negative view of media too but also of Republicans and Trump, and they are strong supporters of welfare and big government. But my bet is they care more about religion, which does not mean some accommodations might not be necessary on welfare spending. Simply insisting on the value of church and religion for social order and the need for it as an alternate to violent religious alternatives should be sufficient. And there is another gem hidden in the study. As with all of the GOP groups, Devouts support smaller more spread out communities.
As noted earlier, while the great majority of Americans are dissatisfied with national government, three-fourths are satisfied with their local community. It is hard not to notice that a large majority of all nine typology groups believe this too. What is absolutely clear from the Pew data is that Americans disagree and so it is not surprising that they are dissatisfied when one set of leaders gets control and forces everyone else to do what they do not want to do.
The Pew data in fact show that Democratic groups want to live in large communities with smaller houses closer together and the Republican ones to live in larger houses in more open areas. If the issues that divide America could be broken down into local decisions, different views could be accommodated differently in different communities.
What an idea — to repair the U.S. political divisions by allowing people to live as they want in their own local communities without Washington forcing one set of policies and moralities on all! Decentralization actually is an old idea that America’s Founders understood and built into the Constitution and its 10th Amendment and just might be worth another look today.
John Eisenschenk/Creative Commons