WEIGHING IN – We’re told we’re more divided than ever.
We read survey results, such as the University of Virginia’s 2021 report that found more than 40% of Biden voters and more than 50% of Trump voters at least somewhat agree it’s time to split the country into “red” and “blue” unions.
We hear politicians calling their colleagues radicals.
And we see headline stacked upon headline telling us that one political faction is waging war against another.
What if this is all a ruse? What if we’re simply focusing on the wrong details?
“Public opinion scholars like myself have known for a long time that we’re not nearly as divided as often portrayed,” said Zoe Oxley, a professor of political science at Union College. “On a number of policy issues, there is more agreement among Americans than the national dialogue would suggest.”
The latest Siena College Research Institute poll released Monday ahead of next month’s budget deadline in New York demonstrates our consensus. Remarkably, the poll found New Yorkers agree on more than we may have guessed – including seemingly divisive issues.
“As Gov. Kathy Hochul and state legislators work to pass a new state budget, two proposals being discussed enjoy strong bipartisan support, and one has strong bipartisan opposition,” Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said in a news release about the poll.
Notably, the research found 83% support among New York Democrats and 64% support among Republicans for raising state income taxes on people who earn more than $5 million. The poll also found 76% support among Democrats and 69% support among Republicans for giving more discretion to judges to set bail for offenders accused of serious crimes.
These have been hot-button topics that have led to fiery debates. You can practically hear the attacks: a Democrat proposes a wealth tax and gets labeled as an extreme socialist, a Republican proposes changes to bail reform and is labeled a racist.
Yet each issue has overwhelming support from people on both sides.
What’s more, New Yorkers expressed some bipartisan unity on banning flavored tobacco, as well as widespread bipartisan opposition to a SUNY tuition hike.
All of this reveals that, while we certainly have differences, we share sizable swaths of common ground.
But the headlines emerging from polls tend to emphasize disagreement. In fact, The Daily Gazette and The Leader-Herald ran headlines Tuesday about Siena’s poll that noted the divisions among voters.
Or consider a 2021 New York Post article that zoomed in on the angle that the University of Virginia’s findings revealed a desire for red-state secession when the same study also found bipartisan agreement on issues such as infrastructure.
We often start from a place of opposition.
“Part of it is media coverage, for sure,” Oxley said. “And part of it is since we live in a two-party world, so much of the national focus is on one side versus another.”
In turn, we see self-fulfilling prophecies, in which the belief in division perpetuates division. In today’s world, this cycle spirals out of control, beginning with issues being churned through PR spin rooms, bifurcated onto separate news broadcasts and released into the echo chambers of social media, where they rattle around and leave us all with battle cries.
What if we stopped believing we have to fight?
The Siena results were publicized the same day our country dealt with yet another senseless and particularly horrific mass shooting. Three 9-year-olds were among the six people killed when a 28-year-old carrying a handgun and two assault-style weapons allegedly opened fire in a Nashville Christian school.
As Oxley noted, gun control, like abortion, is one of those policy issues about which there is a surprising level of consensus that belies the typical rhetoric.
Instead of focusing on the fact that 71% of Americans support stricter gun laws, including half of all Republicans, according to Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research polling conducted last summer, we’re told the story through the lens of leaders hellbent on arguing. After all, that’s how some of them score their political points.
“There is clear evidence that we see division that we didn’t used to see in past decades among elected officials,” Oxley said. “So if media coverage and national discourse starts from the standpoint of ‘what are the officials saying?’ then it appears like there is a lot of division.”
What if we focused on agreement instead of animosity?
“I do put a lot of the responsibility on the current negativity in the discourse on elected officials,” Oxley said. “Elected officials could also be looking for common ground, pointing out where there is actually agreement.”
What if we came together around common-sense ideas that polls show are widely popular?
“Things like gun control,” Oxley said. “There is large support for a variety of gun-control measures. Not all, but some gun-control measures you see 80% to 90% of the public supporting those measures.”
We don’t have to wait for politicians to lead this charge. As Siena’s poll suggests, we likely agree with our neighbors about a lot of things, even if we display yard signs for different candidates. It’s time we have greater discussion about the specific policies that bring us together.
Because I think we can all agree that each of us is broken every time we read about kids murdered in school.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.