Our celebration of America’s birthday this week is shadowed by fear that our democratic institutions are threatened by massive, growing polarization of our society. Americans moan about polarization and blame one another for it. The concern is justified, but too many of us have been misled about the nature and origins of polarization. Take two prominent examples — abortion and gun control.
If forced to choose pro or con on Roe v. Wade, Americans are divided, though mostly pro-choice. But most people’s views are more nuanced. Fortunately, pollsters have accumulated detailed evidence over the 50 years since the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling, asking whether Americans approve abortion in seven specific circumstances: if the mother’s health is at risk; in cases of rape; if there’s a risk of birth defect; in instances when a family can’t afford more children; if the mother is married and doesn’t want more children, or is unmarried and doesn’t want to marry the prospective father, and whether the woman wants an abortion for any reason.
These questions generated an eight-point scale, ranging from “oppose in all circumstances” to “approve in all circumstances.” If we listen to the public debate, we might suppose that most Americans fall at one pole or the other of this continuum.
In fact, few of us are so single-minded. Over the past 50 years, nearly two-thirds of Americans polled have found themselves somewhere in the middle of this scale, approving abortion in some circumstances, but opposing it in other circumstances. Averaged over this half century, only 7 percent are resolutely anti-abortion and 31 percent are resolutely pro-choice. Moreover, more nuanced questions show that even among these apparent extremist views, many have more qualified perspectives.
This polling also shows that Americans’ views, far from becoming more extreme, have become more moderate. In fact, this trend toward moderation is even more marked among younger Americans.
But the views of political leaders have become steadily more polarized over these years, as Republicans have become more conservative on this and other issues, and Democratic leaders have followed suit by becoming more liberal. Almost no one now recalls that when the Roe decision was first rendered in 1973, it was greeted favorably by many Republicans and opposed by many more Democrats. In Congress, Democrats voted against abortion at about the same rate as Republicans, and the same was true of the Supreme Court in Roe itself.
However, Republican politicians soon recognized the potential of abortion as a wedge issue to move socially conservative Catholic voters their way. Gradually, Democratic leaders reacted by moving in the opposite direction.
Why would parties move toward the poles on an issue like abortion or gun control when voters were increasingly concentrated in the middle? It seems to contradict a basic electoral stratagem — ”fish where the fish are.” Here’s why: Voters today often follow their party leaders, motivated by tribal loyalty, not policy views. These fish pursue the hooks. Moreover, our federal system rewards a party whose most fervent voters are concentrated in particular states. That applies to both parties, but in today’s America it applies with special force to the Republicans.
So Americans have not become extremely polarized on abortion. Rather, our political leadership (above all, Republicans) and our institutions (now including the Supreme Court) have forced our views into a disastrously oversimplified “yes or no” choice. American democracy is now in peril, not because of mass polarization, but because of choices made by political leaders, especially Republican.
Gun control is another important instance of polarization in the aftermath of mass shootings, coupled with the recent Supreme Court decision overturning state controls of concealed carry. Here too the facts belie the idea that a polarized public is the problem. And here too the apparent polarization is driven especially by the Republican Party leaders and the Supreme Court.
First, polls show broad, apparently growing, consensus among citizens on many gun policy reforms, including universal background checks, regulation of gun dealers, red flag laws, and bans on assault weapons. (This bipartisan consensus does not apply to concealed carry restrictions of the kind recently overturned by the Supreme Court.)
Second, there is more polarization at the elite and institutional level, led by Republican leaders, than among ordinary citizens. These leadership partisan divisions preceded (and helped to induce) mass partisan polarization.
The bipartisan “Safer Communities Act” signed into law by President Biden in the aftermath of the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings hints at public consensus on gun control, but the act’s very title (eschewing all reference to guns because of Republican opposition) and its very limited reforms show how poorly our political leaders represent that consensus. And even these reforms were instantly overshadowed by the Supreme Court’s decision on concealed carry. Once again, Americans find themselves in a dangerous situation, not because we are ourselves so divided, but because of choices made by our political leaders in both parties, and especially Republican leaders and the Supreme Court they have installed.
Ironically, the Founding Fathers so often cited by Republican ideologues thought that the job of elected officials and constitutional institutions should be to moderate the extremism of ordinary voters. If only the party now holding our republic hostage would return to the wisdom of those who gathered in Philadelphia nearly 250 years ago this week.
Robert D. Putnam is a research professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and co-author of “The Upswing: How Americans Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.”