Americans Sure Do Agree on a Lot


Last week the attorneys general of 18 states and 126 members of the U.S. House of Representatives — all Republicans — signed on to a lawsuit aimed at disenfranchising millions of voters and overturning the result of a not-all-that-close presidential election. Though the Supreme Court quickly rejected the attempt, it was understandably greeted as another sad landmark in the political polarization of the U.S.

Also last week, the attorneys general of 46 states plus the District of Columbia and Guam teamed up with a bipartisan majority on the Federal Trade Commission (the Republican chairman and two Democrats for, two Republicans against) to demand the breakup of Facebook Inc. on antitrust grounds. And on Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives voted 335-78 and the Senate voted 84-13 for a $740.5 billion defense bill, more than enough to override the veto that President Donald Trump has threatened because the legislation includes a provision to remove the names of Confederate leaders from military bases and doesn’t include one to regulate social media companies.

The defense votes are evidence of something my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Jonathan Bernstein has been harping on for years: While Trump is capable of getting his fellow Republican elected officials to go to great lengths to express their support for him, he has shown no ability to persuade them to vote his way on policy matters when they don’t want to.

But I think both they and the Facebook action are also indications of a broader phenomenon. The U.S. seems to have entered an age of widespread agreement on some once-contentious policy issues, even if our politics generally don’t reflect that — yet.

To describe the contours of that widespread agreement, I’m going to rely mainly on poll results, and I know everybody’s been dumping on polls in the wake of November’s elections. But as was the case in 2016, the national polls weren’t all that wrong. In fact, they got President-elect Joe Biden’s popular vote share of 51.3% almost exactly right, with the Real Clear Politics average ending at 51.2% and the weighted FiveThirtyEight average at 51.8%.

It was Trump’s vote share they underestimated, by 2.8 percent points in RCP’s case and 3.4 in FiveThirtyEight’s. That was enough of a polling error to turn what would have been embarrassing landslide defeat for the president into a major fundraising opportunity, but it’s not really enough to dent any of the overwhelming majorities I discuss here.

Also, most of the polling I will cite is from Gallup, thanks to the wonderful job it does of making historical polling data available to the public. Gallup no longer does horse-race presidential polling but does ask about approval of presidents and candidates. In its last poll before the election, it found Biden and Trump separated by an approval margin roughly equal to Biden’s popular-vote win (5 percentage points in the poll versus 4.5 in the election).

Here’s Gallup’s long view on foreign trade, which after four years of a presidency that made restricting trade a key priority has become much more popular (here and elsewhere I have edited the sometimes-quite-wordy questions asked by Gallup to fit the charts).

Americans Sure Do Agree on a Lot

The late, great pollster Daniel Yankelovich differentiated between public opinion, which can be fleeting, and public judgment, which in his view was characterized by:

(1) more thoughtfulness, more weighing of alternatives, more genuine engagement with the issue, more taking into account a wide variety of factors than ordinary public opinion as measured by opinion polls, and (2) more emphasis on the normative, valuing, ethical side of questions than on the factual, informational side.

Given how sharply pro-trade sentiment has risen in the past few years, it’s reasonable to suspect this is more about opinion than judgment. According to Gallup both Republicans and Democrats have become more pro-trade, but one can imagine Democrats have been embracing trade because Trump opposes it and Republicans because they think he has made it fairer — neither of which may hold under the next president.

Still, there does seem to be more at work than that. Another Yankelovich theme was the gap between elite opinion and public opinion, which has at times been quite pronounced on trade issues, especially during economic downturns and periods of slow growth. For decades the pro-trade elite mostly got its way, with international trade’s share of U.S. GDP almost tripling from 1970 to 2011.

But in recent years elites have become a little more skeptical even as the public has become less so, thanks in part to the “China shock” research of economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, which documented the economic, social and political costs to the U.S. of the big shift of manufacturing to China in the 1990s and 2000s. Oh, and trade’s share of GDP has fallen from 36.8% in 2011 to 26.4% in 2019, while manufacturing’s share of U.S. employment has stopped falling. Maybe public opinion is just reacting rationally to changed economic circumstances.

Something similar may be going on with immigration, which has also gotten a lot more popular lately.

Americans Sure Do Agree on a Lot

There is a big partisan divide here, according to Pew Research Center polling, with Democrats now much more pro-immigration than Republicans — which was not the case as recently as the early 1990s. But there isn’t much sign of negative partisanship, in which the two sides adopt opposing positions just because they’re opposite. Yes, Democrats are more enthusiastic about immigration than they used to be, but Republicans aren’t any less so, and during Trump’s presidency they seem to have warmed to it at least a little.

These shifts have taken place in the context of a marked decline in immigration. The Pew Research Center estimates illegal immigration reversed during the Great Recession and net inflows have remained negligible since. Legal immigration had been steady in numerical terms since the mid-1990s, although it declined as a share of population, and has plummeted under Trump.  Sure enough, this spring, for the first time on record, more respondents told Gallup immigration should be increased than decreased — which again seems like a pretty rational reaction to changed circumstances.

Americans Sure Do Agree on a Lot

These results do give a sense of why it can be difficult to convert sentiment into laws. A huge majority of Americans are now favorably disposed to immigration, but there’s not even a 40% plurality for any of the three main policy directions.

The same goes for global warming. After a dip about a decade ago that happened to follow an apparent pause in the rise of global average temperatures, belief that it’s real and humans are causing it has crept back above 60%.

Americans Sure Do Agree on a Lot

Only 45%, though, think global warming will adversely affect them. And there’s a great deal of ambivalence about the need for drastic measures to combat it. There’s no ambivalence at all, though, about government support for solar and wind power, which regularly gets more-than-70% support in polls.

There are other issues where Americans have simply changed their minds en masse, and the policy consequences seem obvious. Gay marriage, for example.

Americans Sure Do Agree on a Lot

That 31% minority is still significant, especially in the conservative states where it is concentrated. But what has happened since the mid-1990s is a truly epic shift that bears all the marks of public judgment rather than just opinion.

A similar judgment appears to have been made regarding drug use, or at least marijuana use.

Americans Sure Do Agree on a Lot

There has also been a dramatic softening in attitudes about crime and punishment, with the percentage of Americans who think the criminal justice system is “not tough enough” declining by more than half from the early 1990s to today.

Americans Sure Do Agree on a Lot

This is at least in part another one of those rational reactions to changed circumstances. Violent crime was near all-time highs in the U.S. in the early 1990s. Now, even with this year’s resurgence in some cities, it’s much, much less of a threat.

Not all “culture war” issues have seen such dramatic shifts, of course. I’m not even going to bother with a chart on views about abortion, because they basically haven’t budged in half a century, with an overwhelming majority against banning all abortions and a somewhat smaller majority against allowing them without restriction. What Americans seem to want on abortion, in other words, is a kludgy compromise.

Views on gun control haven’t been quite that steady, with support for it waning in the 1990s and 2000s, then growing over the past decade in the wake of numerous mass shootings.

Americans Sure Do Agree on a Lot

Kludgy compromise also appears to be the preferred outcome here, though. Back in 1959 Gallup found 60% in favor of banning handgun possession for everyone but police and “other authorized persons.” That gets only 25% support now.

There are, to be sure, important issues on which Americans are quite evenly divided. Taxes, for example, with 46% of those polled this year saying the amount of federal income tax they pay is too high and 48% saying it’s about right (only 3% think their taxes are too low). The percentage who think their taxes are too high has fallen a lot since the 1990s (it hit 68% in 1998), but that makes sense: Federal income taxes are lower than they were in the 1990s.  

On health care, 54% said last year it should be the federal government’s responsibility to make sure everyone has it, and 45% said it was not. The percentage who think it’s a federal responsibility was above 60% for most of the 2000s, then fell with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. What people want in theory is not necessarily what politics can deliver in reality, and there’s no reason to expect that all of these public opinion trends I’ve sketched here will bring a new era of political consensus.

Then again, that bipartisan Facebook antitrust effort comes in the face of some public ambivalence on the topic: 73% told Pew Research Center pollsters this year they think social media companies have too much power, but only 47% thought the government should do more to regulate them.

Translating big majorities on issue polls into political action is hard, and political polarization is generally less about issues than tribalism anyway. But the fact that we’re seeing new bipartisan policy efforts, as polls show big new majorities on issues that once closely divided Americans, does seem to deserve more attention than it has gotten amid all the yelling over the election.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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