How would our politics change if every American was a registered voter? What if the 60% of us that typically don’t vote in primaries could politically engage to select different candidates? Maybe the most active (view politics as a hobby), affluent extremes on the left (8% of the population) and the right (6% of the population) would lose their stranglehold on American politics and the media. Maybe the 67% of Americans who are exhausted by partisan politics and interested in changing our public discourse could flex their muscle for a change. Perhaps America would be a different place.
While most studies on America’s political spectrum focus on voters and how they vote, a recent study by More in Common identifies seven distinct political tribes, not based on voting records, but on identity, psychology, moral foundation and value systems, with differing codes and even facts, that affect core beliefs and how they see the world. What’s most important about the research is the emphasis on the 67% of Americans labeled the “Exhausted Majority” who are “more ideologically flexible, fatigued by all the polarization and angry rhetoric, and generally supportive of political compromise”.
The “Exhausted Majority” is a diverse group of four “tribes”… “Traditional Liberals” who are idealistic about social justice, less intolerant of conservatives, more likely to believe religion is important and place more faith in American institutions; “Passive Liberals” who are weakly engaged, socially liberal, younger and skewed female, uninformed, fatalistic and feel alienated and isolated from “the system”; the “Politically Disengaged” who are lower income, less educated and less engaged, fearful of external threats, less open about differences and pessimistic about bringing together political factions; “Moderates” who reflect the middle of the road of public opinion, tend to be engaged, socially conservative, conflicted on social justice issues, believe religion is important, think political correctness has gone too far, dislike activism and extremism and are slower to embrace change. The main concerns of these groups overlap around division in society, healthcare, and jobs/economy/poverty.
Although these mostly marginalized Americans are fatigued with all the tribalism, 77% believe the differences between Americans are not too big for us to come together. The “Exhausted Majority” has more complex views on contested issues than our polarizing public debates suggest. Their views are not just a midpoint between the extreme left and right wings and vary from issue to issue. Although many of the “Exhausted Majority” don’t engage deeply with controversial issues, they recognize their complexity and approach them with more flexibility. They also tend to want to avoid conflict and look for compromise.
Unfortunately, the “Exhausted Majority’s” detachment allows the opposing wings of the spectrum to dominate public discourse, which is enabled by the media’s preference for conflict (the majority also feel social media has driven the politicization of everyday life). Although most Americans are appalled by our politics, they are also conditioned by it. Millions have absurdly inaccurate perceptions of each other. “Progressive Activists” don’t represent most liberal Americans any more than “Devoted Conservatives” represent most conservatives; but both sides have absorbed these caricatures of the other.
Some consider us-versus-them tribalism to be the greatest social and political challenges of the digital age. But the politically active, privileged “wings” we see on television day and night are simply amplifying social fracturing that already exists. Rising inequality, economic insecurity, the bewildering pace of social and demographic change and fears of crime and terrorism are the more important drivers of threat and retreat into tribal identities (which Authoritarian populists see as opportunity). Perhaps it’s time to engage the “Exhausted Majority” to help us deploy thoughtful listening and compromise to address the real problems rather than the symptoms.
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