This column is not about guns. Not really. I mention that upfront because when you talk about guns people tighten up. So I’m going to write about guns but I’m going to make a broader point. You have to look under the surface of the data to see the point.
Last week Fox News released the results of a poll of registered voters that found that on many proposals the American public wants to see some forms of gun control implemented. Eighty-seven percent favored background checks prior to purchasing a gun. Eighty-one percent favored stepping up enforcement of existing gun laws and increasing the age at which someone could buy a gun to 21. Eighty percent favored mental health checks for gun buyers and allowing the police to take guns away from people who are considered a danger to themselves and others. Seventy-seven percent favor a mandatory 30-day waiting period for gun purchases. That’s a lot of consensus. As I student of public opinion I will note that those numbers would certainly drop a bit if we had a specific policy proposal with a dollar amount attached to it but if you are a gun control advocate it is hard to beat 87%.
The Fox Poll does not say we agree on everything. There are obviously important divides between Democrats and Republicans. For instance, 61 percent favored banning assault weapons. If you break that question down by partisanship you find that 84 percent of Democrats support the ban compared to only 36 percent of Republicans. When asked if more citizens carrying guns would make us safer 61 percent of Republicans said it would while only 27 percent of Democrats agreed.
Politics, by its very nature, focuses on the differences and the disagreements. If someone is running for office they need to give voters a reason to earn their support as opposed to the other candidate. Even the most idealistic of campaigns have what we call a “free-exchange of ideas’’ because it sounds better than “argument.” Anyone who has ever worked on a school board, a church council, or had a group project knows that people disagree with one another. We focus on those disagreements in politics because voters need some way to distinguish between two candidates.
In an era of polarization the differences in our political system are all around us. We do not need to focus on them because they slap us in the face. Maybe in that scenario we should focus on some of the things that unite us.
In the same Fox poll 87 percent of respondents said that it was a “problem” that school boards were banning books from libraries. When asked if something is a problem in a poll respondents are more likely to just agree but the book bannings were 10-15 points more unpopular than everything else in the poll. Sixty-seven percent of Americans according to a 2018 Gallup poll said that same-sex marriage should be legally valid. Does that mean they want same-sex marriages in their churches? No. But it does mean that we broadly agree that same-sex couples should not be discriminated against in the legal aspects of marriage.
Last year 85 percent of Americans told Gallup that abortion should be legal under at least some circumstances. In 2002 Gallup found that large majorities opposed the death penalty for the mentally ill (75 percent), mentally handicapped (82 percent), and minors (69 percent). That was in a poll where 70 percent were in favor of the death penalty in general, and support for the death penalty in general has fallen significantly in the last 20 years. It is rational to assume that opposition for those specific groups has increased.
Guns, LGBTQIA+, school libraries, abortion, the death penalty. All contentious issues. All stuff that we think of as driving Americans apart and yet we agree on a lot of it. Are we going to have disagreements on other aspects of those issues? Of course we are. We find continuous debate on all of them but you already knew that. We see the fight on the fringes and forget that we agree on so much else.
Democracy is hard. It requires us to argue but remain together. It requires us to acknowledge our losses. That is tough. But perhaps it would help if we remembered that divisions of pro/con on contentious issues often mask a broad consensus opinion underneath. Americans are not divided, we just have to look a little deeper than surface level to see it.
David Searcy holds a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University and a PhD in political science from Southern Illinois University.