Abetter-than-expected performance in the recent congressional midterm elections left the Republican Party in control of both houses of Congress. Not only did the GOP capture control of the Senate by ousting a slew of Democratic incumbents, Republicans also added to their majority in the House by at least 13 seats. The result is a very divided government, which has already prompted renewed concerns about gridlock. Will the next two years promise to be an unfortunate sequel to the last two in terms of legislative accomplishment?
Some analysts are expressing cautious—albeit perhaps unwarranted—optimism that the new congressional configuration might actually jump-start the legislative process. Carl Hulse at The New York Times noted that Obama and a GOP Congress might find common ground on trade and energy issues, such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Even newly minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who once vowed to make Obama a “one-term President,” has promised a productive session. At a recent news conference, he promised to end the “gridlock” and “dysfunction” stifling Washington in recent years.
If our political leaders are serious about identifying areas of common purpose they might consult the public, which both reelected Obama by a significant margin in 2012 and gave him a robust Republican congressional majority to work with two years later. Although recent acrimony among elected leaders might suggest otherwise, there are a number of issues about which the public agrees.
Over the last five years, my colleagues and I at Public Religion Research Institute have found that there is widespread support for increasing the minimum wage to $10-an-hour—a move which consistently garners the approval of roughly 7-in-10 Americans. And although Americans differ sharply by race and class on many economic issues, white college-educated Americans (58 percent) approve of this policy almost as readily as white working-class Americans (66 percent). Meanwhile, black and Hispanic Americans overwhelmingly support a minimum-wage hike.
Any doubts about how the public feels about increasing the minimum wage were answered resoundingly with the passage of ballot initiatives raising state minimum-wage laws in four unlikely places—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Every state that had minimum wage on the ballot in 2014 saw it succeed, most by fairly wide margins.
Policies that address sick and family leave also engender strong support. Nearly 8-in-10 (78 percent) Americans favor requiring businesses to provide all full-time employees with paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Support is similarly robust for a policy that would require companies to provide all full-time employees with paid sick days (81 percent favor). Regardless of where Americans place themselves on the political spectrum, support remains strong for both policies. Fully 70 percent of Republicans favor paid sick days for full-time workers, compared to 82 percent of political independents and 90 percent of Democrats.
Another area of consensus has emerged around eliminating mandatory minimum sentences—policies that dictate the length of a prison sentence based on the crime and that may lead to long prison stays for non-violent offenses. The issue of mandatory minimums has received increased media attention of late after it found an unlikely advocate in Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Paul has already co-sponsored legislation with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would give judges more discretion to ignore mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in certain cases. But in leading on the issue, neither Paul nor Leahy is advocating a position that would alienate their base supporters. Quite the contrary. Nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) Americans who are part of the Tea Party movement agree that mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent offenders should be eliminated. Ninety-one percent of liberals also agree. There are few issues that put liberals and Tea Party members on the same side, but eliminating mandatory minimums is one.
Popular accounts of the current cultural and political landscape consistently portray the public as hopelessly divided. Increasing polarization among our legislators is a reflection of the growing divisions in the public. Certainly, policy differences between Democrats and Republicans are real, and recent work has shown that the ideological rift between them is growing. However, media accounts often exaggerate our differences and inflate the volume of disagreement to gin up interest and boost ratings.
As pollsters, we are at times complicit in promoting this narrative by spending an inordinate amount of time cataloguing America’s many fault lines. Few would argue that this is unimportant. It would be impossible to fully understand the increasing diversity and complexity in the U.S. without highlighting the ways we are distinct and unique from one another. But by focusing unrelentingly on our differences, we sometimes fail to identify the issues that unite us. Certainly, when it comes to governing, the reasons we differ and the issues we disagree over are less important than the areas of consensus that we are able to find. It may not appear dramatic or interesting to political observers, but perhaps no issues better define who we are as people or where we are as a country than the issues about which we all basically agree.
Dan Cox is director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute.