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The Murky Nature of Our Political Divides

The liberal/moderate/conservative labels we give ourselves reveal little about what Americans actually want out of policy and government. More progress can be made at the community level, where tribal labels are less relevant.

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Gallup recently published data showing that Americans have become more liberal on social issues, and to a lesser extent on economic issues, over the last 20 years. However, that does not mean there is now a majority or even a plurality of the nation aligned on how we should handle major policy issues.

What it does mean is that instead of the back-and-forth stalemate of national politics, governance should be pushed down to local communities as often as possible, where the common ground of sharing a community can often outweigh tribal politics.

The new Gallup data shows that Americans are now evenly split into thirds, with about equal numbers identifying as conservative, moderate or liberal on social issues. Over the last 20 years, these groups have equalized — 20 years ago just 1 in 5 Americans identified as socially liberal, while roughly even numbers called themselves moderate or conservative on social issues. On economic issues, 23 percent now identify as liberal, up from just 16 percent in 2000. There is a definite trend toward self-identified liberal ideology.

But there is some evidence that these labels are more tribal than policy-based, a distinction that is more meaningful in the context of issues of national interest than for those that relate to issues of local governance.

There is a large gap, for example, between identifying as socially liberal and adopting positions typically associated with that outlook. Just 33 percent of Americans call themselves social liberals, but policies typically considered to be socially liberal are favored by significantly more Americans: 52 percent consider themselves pro-choice on abortion rights, for example. On other social issues, things get even murkier. Seven in 10 Americans support same-sex marriages, and over half oppose laws that criminalize providing gender-transition medical care to minors.

On economic issues, the 23 percent who currently identify as liberal tracks with data showing that the majority of Americans believe they pay too much in taxes, but not with the 56 percent who support a guaranteed-income program or the 57 percent who prefer that social-welfare aid come directly from government rather than from market-based solutions. Overall, the number of Americans who use the label “liberal” is disconnected from the number of Americans who like liberal policies.

Ideological affiliations reveal less about what Americans actually want out of policy and government than we might hope. The truth is there is no shortcut for having a deep, nuanced understanding of what Americans believe and how much they want government to do. The details matter, but aren’t captured in the red-vs.-blue dynamics into which our national political discourse has devolved. Using ideological or partisan proxies is increasingly likely to leave policymakers lacking the support they expect to have and voters unhappy with the final results.

If Americans’ policy preferences are more bipartisan than their labels let on, there is little hope for progress in the current political climate in Washington, where policymakers fear even being seen with the opposition, let alone being known for working together. But the temperament in state and local governments is different. More progress can be made where tribal labels are less relevant.

Recent polling from our organization, the State Policy Network (SPN), confirms that voters feel there is less tribalism at the state and local level: Over half of voters (53 percent) agree that politics at those levels of government is less tribal and divisive. A University of Chicago/AP-NORC poll also found that Americans are more likely to find state and local taxes fair, and the SPN research showed higher levels of trust the more local the government.

In local communities, elected officials typically have a better understanding of what people in their area want and need, and this often transcends political boundaries. People are more likely to have a connection through schools, churches, clubs or shared experiences with the people they are working with — or against. This forces people to humanize and empathize with each other, creating a working environment that could never occur at the national scale. And most importantly, it gives people a real opportunity to have a voice in their government.

Rather than focusing on the number of conservatives versus liberals in America, we should put more emphasis on letting communities, whatever their ideological makeup, decide for themselves how to be governed.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and senior messaging strategist at the State Policy Network.
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