Are Americans as polarized as their politicians?

For much of February, Americans will unite around the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. When the two weeks of international competition wraps up, they’ll have an opportunity to get back to fighting about the best way to ensure a future for the country they just cheered for, with the midterm elections coming up this fall.

 But while division in Washington has been par for the course during President Obama’s second term, how true is that for the rest of the country? Jim DeMint, a former conservative senator from South Carolina and current president of the Heritage Foundation, said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” Sunday that the deepest divides are in Washington.

“Frankly people are less interested in the label of Republican and Democrat and they're tired of that, but they will unite around some principles that will give us a stronger economy, a strong society, a strong America. And those are the things we want to talk about,” DeMint said of the work his organization is doing. “America's not nearly as divided as it looks like they are in Washington.”

Of course, DeMint was one of the Senate’s most conservative lawmakers and now runs a think tank that has taken a distinctly rightward turn under his leadership. Before talking about how Democrats and Republicans eschew labels, he said, “A lot of us as conservatives don’t feel like we are well represented in Washington right now. And I think a lot of Americans, regardless of political labels, feel the same way.”

DeMint is right that Americans feel disconnected from the increasingly partisan lawmakers that drive the agenda in Washington. A CBS News poll taken after the shutdown found that 76 percent of Americans don’t think they have much say in what their government does, which is the highest number recorded since the question was first asked in 1990. That number was higher among Republicans (87 percent) than Democrats (68 percent), with independents falling right in the middle (77 percent). If too many people feel like they have no say, that will lead to lower voting rates – which tends to leave only the most partisan voters casting ballots.

At the same time, as people feel less able to affect change, the number of independents has been steadily creeping upward. A Gallup poll that has studied voter preferences for the last 25 years showed that a record number of Americans – 42 percent – self-identified as political independents in early January, with Republican identification dropping more quickly than Democratic identification.

These numbers would suggest that midterm voters will reward candidates who advocate for a more centrist approach and prize deal-making over the kind of ideological purity contest that has marked so much of recent politics, including the 2012 Republican primary.

And on the surface, it may seem that way in Congress as well: lawmakers moved to increase the U.S. borrowing authority last week, passing a bill that has been the subject of bitter partisan fights during President Obama’s tenure with far less fanfare than usual. Republicans, seeing no clear strategy that the majority of lawmakers supported and looking to avoid a repeat of the government shutdown last year, let the Democrats take the lead and lift the debt ceiling. The leadership in both parties abandoned their usual fights and voted in favor of the bill.

But it wasn’t that cut-and-dried. Instead of walking into a fight that could have ended disastrously, Republicans left the policy points on the table and opted for a political victory of spending. The rank-and-file members let their leadership take the tough votes and stuck to their guns – perhaps because outside conservative groups like DeMint's Heritage Foundation were telling them it was a bad strategy.

It was a quiet resolution to a fight that has gone to the brink in the past, but it wasn’t pretty, especially for Republican leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who are facing primary challenges from the right back in their home states – a sign that the Republican infighting that has ensconced the party won’t end anytime soon.

If Americans are fed up with hyper-partisanship, they aren’t showing it at the voting booth, at least at the state level. A full three-quarters of states – 37 out of 50 – are under unified party control (where Republicans or Democrats control both the governor's office and the legislature), which leads to big partisan victories, like a growing number of states legalizing gay marriage or restricting abortion rights. And it turns out independents aren’t all that independent, after all – just one third of them see both parties as too extreme, according to an August 2013 CBS News poll. Instead, they tend to see one party as too extreme.

Among partisans, those numbers are staggering: 69 percent of both Democratic and Republican voters think the other party’s representation in Congress is too extreme. It’s no wonder bipartisanship in Washington is viewed with suspicion, as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida – a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate – learned the hard way when his work on the Senate immigration bill was met with plummeting poll numbers. In an April 2013 Quinnipiac poll, 19 percent of Republicans or those who leaned Republican picked him as the candidate they would vote for in a GOP primary. By January 14, that number had dropped to just 8 percent.

The midterms are still nine months away, and the primaries could provide some answers about whether Americans are looking to shake up the political system again, which seems likely to lead to even more gridlock, or stick with the current system and its known dysfunction. 

But until then, we can ponder DeMint's suggestion that Americans are less divided than Washington. If by divided, he means polarized, polling shows America is actually becoming more polarized. If it means that there are more self-identifying as independent, even then, polling shows independents shun one party as too extreme. As it turns out, contrary to DeMint's point, Congress may very well simply be a reflection of a divided America. 

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

Comments