A Grain Of Saul

A Grain Of Saul: Believe It Or Not, Americans Still Agree On A Ton Of Important Issues

How divided are we, really?

Over the last several years, and perhaps even decades, our politicians, news organizations, and television pundits have blared a sad and consistent message: Americans disagree on tons of important issues. Abortion, guns, immigration, and who to vote for are all at the top of the list.

The Washington Post even published a four-part series titled, simply, "A nation, divided."

As proof of how much Americans disagree we are shown footage of riots at political events, politicians arguing, people taking hard rhetorical stances and polling data for issues where there is a near 50-50 split opinion. In turn, politicians take stands on the issues in ways that have no flexibility and often times no nuance, forcing voters to chose a binary that only resembles their belief, but doesn't actually represent it accurately.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is gun control. Americans views are in many ways aligned, but also nuanced: 92 percent of Americans say they want expanded background checks while only 54 percent would vote for a ban on assault rifles. Instead of working through these nuances, though, politicians take hard "pro-second amendment" or "pro-gun control" stances. They offer amendments or reforms that would enact both changes or neither, but not one or the other. They force Americans into a choice, and in turn divide the country into two camps. 

While this happens, we lose our focus on what we generally agree on, and what we could get done. 

The truth is, there is still quite a bit of common ground among Democrats and Republicans. Despite several reports that America is as polarized as it has ever been, Democrats and Republicans still agree on the top four most important issues in this presidential race: economy, terrorism, jobs, and healthcare. 

Though disagreements arise about how to handle those major issues, there is some consensus: 71 percent of Americans support a raise in federal minimum wage. 79 percent of Americans want increased U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State to take out leaders, heavy weapons and infrastructure. 76 percent of Americans oppose sending conventional ground troops to the Middle East. Only 11 percent of Americans say they are "very satisfied" with the availability of affordable healthcare. Nine in 10 Americans believe we need to regulate financial services and products to protect consumers.


There is even greater consensus about whether or not Congress is doing its job: Americans mostly agree that our lawmakers are failing us. 

In February, a Rasmussen Report found that just 11 percent of likely U.S. voters thought Congress was doing a good or excellent job. A June Gallup poll found the number to be closer to 13 or 15 percent, while both found nearly or more than 60 percent of Americans think Congress is doing a poor or bad job. That might explain why 75 percent of Americans would vote for term limits in Congress.

Generally speaking, Americans share similar critiques and rate things with similar levels of priority across the board. Oftentimes, it's the way to solve issues that forces divisions, and even then those divisions are exaggerated by the fact that we are forced into standing behind certain politicians and policies that may not represent us the way we want them to.

For instance, what if I told you that Americans generally agree on how to handle immigration? You might think about Donald Trump calling for a wall on the border, the subsequent fights outside of his rallies, the totally split reaction to his comments and then laugh in my face. 

But it's actually true

71 percent of Americans say undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements should be allowed to stay in the country, meaning they don't exactly favor Trump's plan to try and deport 11 million people. Seventy-seven percent of Americans say legislation giving them the opportunity to do so should also call for increased security on the borders. Only 39 percent of Americans say they want to amend the U.S. Constitution to disallow any child being born in the U.S. to be granted full citizenship.

America's views even change together.

Just look at the perceived moral acceptability of gay and lesbians: amongst 18 to 34-year-olds, it's nearly 80 percent, up from 52 percent in 2001. In the older generation (55 and over), where acceptability is the lowest, it's still trending upward from 27 percent acceptability in 2001 to 55 percent in 2015.

And while those feelings about the LGBT community might correlate with certain religious and generational affiliations, it is just one of many topics we are told we disagree on. 

Similarly, Americans may be convinced that religious affiliation and belief divide us; but the "War on Christmas" and "religious bigots" and the "War on Islam" and "conservative values" are also a construct of the rich and powerful. That's not to say they don't exist, in some cases they do, but Americans actually have a consensus on the issue of a higher power: 89 percent of adults believe "in God or a universal spirit."

We agree about privacy: Ninety-three percent of Americans say it is important to control who can get their information but only 9 percent feel that they have control over how much information is collected about them.

We agree on food: two-thirds of Americans support labeling genetically modified food, nearly 90 percent of us are trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, and almost all of us are trying to improve one aspect of our eating habits. 

We agree about the media: only 6 percent of us say we have a lot of confidence in the media, and 90 percent say it's extremely or very important that the media get their facts correct. 

To an overwhelming degree, Americans admire those who get rich by working hard, favor teaching sex education in public schools, find birth control morally acceptable, feel some level of patriotism, and want society to ensure everyone gets an equal chance to succeed.

Why these agreements don't make the headlines is a matter of conjecture. 

Some may say it's because the media succeeds more often when they are covering divisions than unification. Others may say it's because corporate money is spent to keep us bickering amongst ourselves instead of holding politicians accountable. (By the way, 84 percent of Americans believe money yields too much political power.) I believe it's a combination of both, but also must remind you nothing is more important than the fact that we — Americans — spend more time arguing about what we don't agree on than reaching out to our neighbors about the ideas and values we share.

And at the end of the day, that's another thing we have in common: Americans are great at being all talk. While we stand in agreement on so much, we are still so far from living in that world we want.

Our gun laws have not and will not change. Our immigration system desperately needs reform but we probably won't get it the way we want to. Our war against terrorism is already evolving into a war on the ground. Our privacy is being violated every day and we do nothing. Our politics are infused with financial corruption and we're left with a choice of a billionaire donor or a career politician who has perfected the game of receiving large sums of money. So many of our shared values are things I believe to be good and honorable priorities or beliefs, and yet we do far too little to stand up for what we agree on, instead investing most of our energy in where we are divided.

The proof is in the pudding: while 9 out of 10 people told Pew it's their duty to always vote, fewer than 6 in 10 Americans showed up for the 2012 presidential election, and only about 40 percent for the midterms. All the while, 68 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Maybe if more of us put our time and effort where our mouths are, we'd start living in the world so many of us want to see. At least there's hope in the fact many of us see the same thing.

Isaac Saul is a reporter for A Plus and author of his weekly column "A Grain of Saul." You can follow him on Twitter


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