IU survey: In polarized political climate, public looks to Congress for compromise

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Politicians in Washington may say they are doing the public's bidding, but the people lean toward the view that Congress is more polarized than the citizenry, according to a survey by the Indiana University Center on Representative Government.

"Only 18 percent of those we surveyed felt the public is more polarized than Congress," said Edward G. Carmines, Distinguished Professor, Warner O. Chapman Professor and Rudy Professor of Political Science at IU. "Twenty-six percent felt the public is less polarized; the rest say it's pretty equal."

Indiana University has been conducting its survey of public attitudes about Congress and public affairs for more than a decade. Polarization is defined as the movement of members of the two parties to the ideological extremes.

Carmines, who oversees the annual survey, said another key finding is that "a decisive majority -- 60 percent -- say that members of Congress 'should compromise to get things done 'rather than 'stand up for their principles no matter what.'"

"The public really does expect and want Congress to find a way to get things done through the art of compromise, which is of course under assault every day in our modern Congress." Carmines said.

Given a choice between cooperation or gridlock, "the public wants to encourage members of Congress to compromise, so that they can get the government to move forward and deal with challenges facing the country," said Michael M. Sample, IU vice president for public affairs and government relations and director of the Center on Representative Government.

The survey also asked respondents to rate five principles and practices of representative government. It gauged 'support for: an independent judiciary; a free and independent press; a Bill of Rights that guarantees the rights of a political minority; a Congress with power equal to the president; and checks and balances in the exercise of power:

  • 58 percent think that having a free and independent press is "very important" to the functioning of American democracy.
  • 52 percent regard an independent judiciary as "very important."
  • Almost 50 percent see the Bill of Rights as "very important," and 38 percent rate it as "important."
  • 61 percent regard checks and balances between the branches of government as "very important."
  • 38 percent believe it is "very important" for Congress to have equal power with the president despite the low performance rating given to Congress.

"There doesn't seem to be in our survey any erosion of public support for these principles and practices of representative government," Carmines said. Given the tenor of the times, that should be reassuring to the American people, he said.

State legislatures came out way ahead of Congress in several survey questions. Fifty-two percent said their state legislature was "very" or "moderately" responsive to people's concerns. Sixty-one percent said states should exercise more power than the federal government in policymaking. And 71 percent said state legislators are more ethical than members of Congress.

However, only 30 percent said they follow state government news more closely than news about the federal government.

"This finding raises a question that merits further study: Would public attitudes about state government change if state legislatures received the kind of media scrutiny that Congress and the national government get?" said Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years in the U.S. House and is now a distinguished scholar at IU and a senior advisor to the Center on Representative Government.

The findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1,000 people conducted in November and December 2017 by the internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.

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