BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – As bad as political polarization is in the nation’s capital, the problem is worse in the citizenry beyond the Beltway, according to a survey of public attitudes about Congress and public affairs conducted by the Indiana University Center on Representative Government.
Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed in late 2016 said the American public is about as polarized as, or more polarized than, members of Congress. That’s a significant jump from 2015, when the survey found 63 percent rating Congress and the public as similarly afflicted by polarization, which is defined as the movement of members of the two parties to the ideological extremes.
Indiana University has been conducting its public survey for more than a decade. The annual effort is overseen by Distinguished Professor Edward G. Carmines, the Warner O. Chapman Professor of Political Science and Rudy Professor at IU.
“In 2016, we broadened the scope of the questions to gauge Americans’ views on the relative importance of various elements of our representative government,” Carmines said. “I thought it was striking that majorities rated as ‘very important’ both ‘a free and independent press’ (54 percent) and ‘checks and balances in the exercise of power by the Congress, the president and the Supreme Court’ (57 percent).”
An “independent judiciary” was rated as “very important” to representative government by 49 percent, and “a Bill of Rights that guarantees the rights of a political minority” earned the “very important” rating from 42 percent.
Only 30 percent rated as “very important” having “a Congress with power equal to that of the president.”
The public’s low regard for politics in Washington was strikingly evident in responses to several survey questions that posed a comparison between state and federal government.
When asked “Should the federal government or state governments exercise more power in terms of policymaking?” 58 percent preferred state governments. To the question, “In general, do you believe that members of state legislatures or members of the U.S. Congress are more ethical in conducting their official duties?” 65 percent chose state legislators.
And when asked “If you had a problem, are you more likely to seek assistance in solving the problem from your state or the federal government?” 75 percent said state government.
The contrast in the public’s regard for state and federal legislators is sharp. Asked “How responsive do you think that your state legislature is to the concerns of people like you?” 54 percent said “very” or “moderately” responsive. But asked “How responsive do you think that Congress is to the concerns of people like you?” 75 percent said either “not very” or “not at all.”
“One notable finding in the survey is that the public holds a more favorable view of state governments even as it pays comparatively less attention to government at that level,” said Mike Sample, IU vice president for public affairs and government relations and director of the Center on Representative Government.
When asked “Do you pay more attention to news about the federal government or your state government?” only 31 percent said they follow state government news more than news about the federal government.
“This finding raises the question of how public attitudes might change if the media devoted more resources to covering legislative action in the state capitols, which typically do not receive as much scrutiny as Congress,” said Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years in the House and is now a distinguished scholar at IU and a senior advisor to the Center on Representative Government.
The survey found near-unanimous sentiment – 93 percent – that polarization is a big problem for the functioning of Congress. Asked what steps might be taken to reduce polarization in the national legislature, the public seemed very open to suggestions.
Nearly half those surveyed thought it “very important” to end the gerrymandering that creates noncompetitive elections in many House districts. About the same number saw it as “very important” to change the congressional calendar so members of Congress spend more time in Washington, where presumably they could focus on building relationships with colleagues across the aisle and forging legislative compromises, rather than spending so much time in their districts cultivating voter support.
More than half of those surveyed saw it as “very important” to curb anonymous campaign attack ads and place term limits on members of Congress to ensure regular turnover.
The 2016 findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1,000 people conducted in November and December by the internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.