Every day we see evidence of polarization in American politics and culture. And yet, a majority of us actually agree on dozens of matters. Last fall, YouGov polling data published the results of several 2022 surveys, polls and trackers involving an admixture of 1,500 people whose ages, gender and race reflected U.S. demographics.
Consider the strong percentages of agreement on the following: Inflation is serious (88%); our country is on the wrong track (64%); racism is real, and it’s a problem (68%); violent crime is a serious issue (79%); so are drug abuse (73%) and illegal immigration (61%); white-supremacist extremism is a concern (62%); U.S. representatives should compromise and be bipartisan (60%); and the U.S. president should unite the country (87%).
And more: the US flag is a positive symbol (77%); support for the Presidential Records Act (69%); lack of child care is a problem for working moms (71 %); social welfare programs are fine (75-79% support for key programs); abortion should be legal in most or all cases (64%); favorable views prevail about several levels of law enforcement (ranging from 62 to 68%) and the military (77%); gas-powered cars contribute to climate change (75%); and in foreign relations, the United Kingdom is our friend (86%) and both Russia (85%) and China (80%) our enemies.
To the YouGov data we can add others: majorities of Americans agree that military-style assault weapons should be banned (63%, according to Gallup). Because the right to vote is central in a functioning democracy, voting should be made easier, not more difficult. Every week brings more evidence that a cross-section of the public disagrees with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Heavy majorities want limits set on campaign spending, and they support raising taxes on the wealthiest 2% of Americans.
Political leaders generally respond on matters involving Social Security and numerous social programs, but on crucial issues such as taxes, abortion, immigration and military-style weapons, they balk at honoring public sentiment. Several reasons for that are clear.
Big Money counts heavily. More than anything else, it drives Washington politics. Politicians with ready access to greater pools of money live in a world far removed from that of ordinary citizens. What’s needed is to more adequately insulate politics from the power of big money.
One reasonable solution is to have political parties and campaigns funded with public, not private, money. It was a mistake for the U.S. Supreme Court in its 5-4 split Citizens United decision (2010) to conflate private donations with constitutionally protected free speech – oddly assuming that such spending wouldn’t encourage corruption. But it helped those with wealth to “manage democracy,” in political theorist Sheldon Wolin’s apt phrase.
Tax laws provide another example of wealth management. IRS data from ProPublica tells us that billionaires with the names of Bezos, Zuckerberg, Koch and Bloomberg pay less than a 2% rate on federal income taxes. And a White House study last year reveals that the wealthiest 400 billionaire families pay federal income taxes at a rate of a little more than 8%. School teachers pay higher rates.
Such disparities arise not from natural laws or free market economics but from rules written by humans. You change the rules, you change the game.
The issue of gun control plays out in a similar manner. A year has passed since the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 students and two teachers dead. Not only has the state legislature refused to act, the leader of the state senate has warned against even bringing up firearms legislation – or be barred from speaking. After each mass shooting we hear the three oft-repeated words: Our “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims’ families.
In Louisiana, lawmakers are advancing a bill to establish a Second Amendment Sales Tax Holiday that would provide a three-day exemption of the tax on all firearms and related items. The NRA is providing such powerful support for it that one legislator asked, “How I can I not support the amendment?”
Though more than six in 10 Americans say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, sincere pro-life sentiment does run strong among millions of voters. It’s treacherous ground for Republican candidates seeking votes. When Roe v. Wade was law, it was easy enough for GOP leaders to say they would ban abortion if given the chance. The U.S. Supreme Court provided that opportunity with its Dobbs decision last year.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, himself a pro-choice Republican (and potential presidential candidate), has stated that his party “is ‘losing’ the national electorate when it seeks to impose widespread, restrictive anti-abortion policies.’’ However, recognizing the politics of the matter, he then signed a law banning most abortions in the Granite State after 24 weeks.
On questions of Big Money in politics, tax laws, gun control and the emergence in many states of highly restrictive abortion rights, it would cool the public temper if our political leaders responded more effectively to the views of their constituents. That would not perfect our political system, but it would bring improvement by making it more democratic.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. Contact him at [email protected] His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of the newspaper.