Next week will see the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as our 45th president of our divided nation.
A new Gallup poll confirms that fewer and fewer Americans occupy the ideological middle ground: The portion of those who describe themselves as “moderates” has steadily declined over the last quarter-century, and was tied for low of 34% in the new poll. That is sharply down the 43% who described themselves as moderates in 2001, at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration.
Meanwhile, the fraction of Americans identifying themselves as liberals has risen from 17% in 2001 to a new high of 25%. The fraction of Americans describing themselves as conservative has fluctuated in a narrow band between 36% and 40% and is down to 36% in the new poll.
These are troubled times in our politics, indeed, but it may be mistaken to emphasize the simple fact of deep divisions in our country as the source of our troubles.
First, Americans have always been divided: Federalists and Anti-federalists, Progressives and their opponents; “New Dealers” and their opponents on both the right and the left; and so on. It is normal and healthy in a democracy to have deep differences of view.
Moreover, although moderates are fewer, they may be no less important in setting the overall policy direction for the country. One of the most enduring political science theories of the twentieth century is the “median voter theorem,” which states that policymakers will consistently settle on policies favored by the median voter—the voter who is in the middle between the 49.9% of voters who are more liberal and 49.9% who are more conservative. Public discourse may be more volatile when voters are more deeply divided, but public policy will not veer to an extreme under any new administration, or at least not for long.
But as national discourse is fractious, opportunities for local communities to come together in “philanthrolocal” efforts offer a way forward. Atlantic correspondent James Fallows writes in this month’s issue about the ways in which Americans remain more hopeful about their local communities than the nation. He cites survey evidence to make that point:
A Pew study in 2014 found that only 25 percent of respondents were satisfied with the direction of national policy, but 60 percent were satisfied with events in their own communities. According to a Heartland Monitor report in 2016, two in three Americans said that good ideas for dealing with national social and economic challenges were coming from their towns. Fewer than one in three felt that good ideas were coming from national institutions.
In local communities, “conservative,” “liberal” and “moderate” labels matter not very much—and what will work for our community and our neighbors is easier to see than what might work for the nation as a whole. As we ride out the fractious years that seem likely to mark the Trump administration, turning to what we can accomplish in our own communities offers a way to overcome our divisions.