One of American politics' most comforting nostrums is the notion that we always are united by far more than what divides us. It's a sentiment Barack Obama repeats frequently in his speeches.
But a comprehensive new survey of the American electorate by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center indicates that the most politically engaged Americans now are fundamentally opposed to compromise, divided on virtually every basic national question and separated from one another by everything from their race to the choice of where they get their news.
Moreover, the increasing numbers of independents, who've theoretically pushed national politics to the center with their preference for middle-of-the-road policies, no longer are particularly moderate.
According to Pew, 25 percent of registered voters hold views that make them "mostly Republican," 40 percent incline "mostly Democratic," and 35 percent are independents of various stripes.
The Republicans, according to Pew's findings, are overwhelmingly white (about 9 out of 10), devoutly and decisively Protestant (roughly 7 of 10) and financially well-off (7 of 10). The old divide between the GOP's social and economic conservatives, Pew found, has been erased. These days, to be Republican is to be equally conservative in both areas. This national realignment, the Pew analysts argue, is the most significant change in the six years since their most recent such survey.
While a majority of the Democrats' most ideologically liberal members (16 percent of the electorate) are white, the party's other factions also include large percentages of upwardly mobile white immigrants, blacks and Latinos, as well as a substantial number of blue-collar whites and blacks (together, 15 percent of registered voters). Nearly half of those African-Americans and working-class whites are "socially conservative and very religious," which sets them apart from this coalition's other constituents.
Perhaps the most striking of Pew's findings is the realization that independent voters remain free of party but not of ideology, ranging from libertarians (now 10 percent of registered voters) to a group that, the poll says, takes "conservative positions on questions about racial policy and the social safety net" but is "very liberal on social issues." Voters in this latter bloc (14 percent of the electorate) are overwhelmingly white, younger than most, not particularly religious and living in the suburbs.
Americans' consumption of news and information increasingly mirrors our ideological preferences: Democrats solidly rely on CNN, Republicans on Fox News. Nearly 1 in 5 "solidly liberal" voters regularly reads the New York Times; just 1 of 100 "staunch conservatives" does. Slightly more than 20 percent of the former watch "The Daily Show"; a nearly equal proportion of the latter are Glenn Beck fans. Thirty-four percent of liberals listen to NPR; less than 1 in 10 conservatives does.
Perhaps most troubling, Pew found that a majority of registered voters — and a stunning 79 percent of "staunch conservatives" — say they "prefer elected officials who stick to their positions over those who make compromises with people they disagree with."
For generations, historians and political analysts have identified a predilection for pragmatic problem solving over ideology as the defining — and distinctive — characteristic of American political life. Clearly, that's a thing of the past, and with it, the impulse to bipartisanship.
A democratic system that disdains compromise has no way forward but the brutality of simple majoritarianism. In a society as diverse and divided as ours, that path is sown with its own perils.