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The two faces of American voters

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Americans are hypocrites, politically speaking.

Overwhelmingly, voters express a desire for politicians to compromise. A Pew Research Center study in June found that 65 percent of Americans believe it is very important that elected officials compromise with opponents. This sentiment holds when viewed along party lines — 61 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats say politicians should compromise.

Yet, here’s the kicker: Despite this hope for more genteel politics, when asked about core issues — for example, immigration — Americans won’t stomach compromise. Accepting compromise is a lot harder when outcomes do not reflect strong-held views. Voters pay lip service to a less polarized political landscape but refuse to do what is needed to achieve that for fear of appearing weak.

These competing preferences are unsurprising. Wishing for something is always easier than doing the work needed to bring it about. The problem, however, is that this cognitive dissonance makes it even harder for the country to find paths toward a less vicious political climate. Depolarizing America is a mammoth undertaking, but one way is to turn the spotlight away from national events and refocus on local politics.

Since 1968, politics, like most things in America, have become nationalized. There is greater turnout during presidential years; turnout is low for the midterms, and ballot roll-off increases exponentially the more local the candidate. Many voters know more about top-line candidates than they do about their municipal representatives. That makes sense: News outlets are often inclined to cover the eye-popping national events — but doing so comes at a detriment.

The nationalization of American politics requires the unification of disparate groups under a broad theme where multiple entrance points are necessary. Here, antipathy toward the other side is the easiest. Whether a voter is rich or poor, highly educated or not, the easiest narrative uniting disparate groups cutting across differences is, “The other side is destroying our way of life.”

What, if anything, can be done to refocus and help depolarize?

Some argue for a fundamental overhaul of the American political system. We accept the nationalization of politics and change our electoral system to better reflect this reality. In other words, scrap the districting system, move to the proportional representation electoral system, and make politics truly about political parties and national interests. Make America a Parliamentary System (MAPS! I found my campaign slogan).

This will fail, if for no other reason than it is the complete antithesis of American democracy.

A more realistic approach ensuring a multifaceted politic promoting bipartisan cooperation, is to turn our attention to local news and politics. A forthcoming study finds that when it comes to local issues, Democrats and Republicans look similar. Using data from a YouGov survey, researchers examine the preferences of Democratic and Republican residents of eight U.S. metro areas (including the cities and suburbs): Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Indianapolis, Memphis, Rochester, Seattle and St. Louis.

Huge differences exist between Democrats and Republicans nationally, but when it comes to local issues committing ourselves to local politics would ensure that our participation has the greatest chance of mattering. An individual active in local politics can affect outcomes more directly than he or she could nationally.

Local politics can be a release valve depressurizing nationalization and polarization that we claim to hate so much.

Jonathan Hack is a researcher and program officer for the Anxieties of Democracy program at the Social Science Research Council in New York, an independent nonprofit organization.

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