Just when you think you have some clear sense of American public opinion, and especially get depressed about abundant signs that the country has turned into Polarization Nation at least for the time being, the nation throws you for a loop – in this case an especially encouraging one. At least that’s how I interpret these new Gallup findings about voters’ priorities as the home stretch of Election 2014 approaches.
Some of the data confirmed widespread assumptions. For example, only 19 percent of registered voters who describe themselves as Republicans or “Republican-leaners” viewed climate change as an “Extremely/Very Important” issue. Sixty-one percent of Democrats or “Democratic leaners” put the subject in this category. Three quarters of self-identified Democrats and leaners regarded income inequality as a major concern, versus only 54 percent of their Republican counterparts. And an even wider gap separated the two groups on the question of equal pay for women.
But the data for the last two categories also contain some of those hopeful surprises. Would you, for instance, have believed that more than half of Republicans and leaners are worked up about income inequality? In principle, of course, those Republicans could be fretting about too great a prospect of inequality-reducing policies being launched. But what about the 58 percent of Republicans mentioning equal pay for women (versus 87 percent of Democrats)? Is it really possible that many or most think women have made too much progress on this front already?
Similarly, it was entirely predictable that 77 percent of Republicans and leaners would regard “taxes” as a crucial issue – presumably because they’re supposedly too high. But what about the 63 percent of Democrats and leaners putting taxes on this list? Could many or most think they’re too low?
Other pleasant surprises: The Democrats’ top concern was “the availability of good jobs”; 89 percent called it an “Extremely/Very important” issue. And although Republicans and leaners viewed it as their third leading concern, 83 percent of them agreed with this characterization. Curiously, Gallup keeps presenting “the economy” as an issue separate from jobs. Nonetheless, 91 percent of Republicans described it as a major issue (ranking it Number One in the process), and 86 percent of Democrats assigned it comparable importance (ranking it third).
International crises have caught the attention of both groups of voters, too. Republicans were somewhat more concerned: ISIS advances in the Middle East were their second highest priority issue, with 85 percent calling them “Extremely/Very Important.” And 73 percent of that camp attached this label to “foreign affairs.” But Democrats were hardly blasé. Seventy-two percent regarded ISIS’ rise as a high priority, and 64 percent agreed re foreign affairs.
Gallup also asked voters the similar, but not identical, question of which issues would be major influences on their actual vote. And the results were pretty much the same.
Back in the mid-1990s, I was part of a group of liberals and conservatives who met informally once a month to discuss the chances of creating a “new synthesis” in American politics. The aim was combining the best and most politically appealing positions from each camp. Lots of common ground was discovered, but the renewed partisanship triggered by the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment campaign seemed to cool everyone’s interest. These Gallup results – and my own continuing confidence in the common sense of a critical mass of the American people – indicates that discussions like that 1990s group need to be restarted.