This op-ed by State Policy Network’s Erin Norman first published at Governing.
Science magazine recently published an article, linking to a preprint of a paper on political violence in America, with the clickbait headline that nearly half of Americans believe there will be a civil war in the United States in the next few years. Although the picture of neighbors fighting neighbors certainly garners attention, it is not the reality in America, even if the political elite — including politicians, pundits and the media— have everything to gain by such a portrayal.
Despite a best-in-class online panel for the survey underlying the paper, a large portion of the data cannot be credibly interpreted due to a clumsy question-drafting flaw. Best practices in survey writing dictate an equal number of positive and negative response options. However, in a series of questions focused on extreme views, Americans were given three nuanced ways to agree, just one absolute option to disagree, and no option for admitting that they didn’t have enough knowledge to answer — naturally leading to an overstatement of agreement.
If you look at the number of Americans who do have a strong belief in a coming civil war, it falls just under 14 percent, far below the crisis point hyped. As a comparison point, 14 percent of Americans believe in a wide range of theories outside of the realm of the likely, such as the CIA distributing crack cocaine to the inner cities in the 1980s or the U.S. Navy shooting down TWA Flight 800 in the mid-1990s and then covering it up.
Take instead a recent Morning Consult poll showing that 63 percent of registered voters would be more likely to vote for a member of Congress who finds compromise and common ground. Or a national poll by Scott Rasmussen showing that 62 percent of Americans believe our nation can learn from our mistakes and fix the problems we face. There is extensive research showing Americans want to and can agree on policy solutions but are pushed aside by politicians who retain power through divisiveness. Perhaps that is one reason that trust in government, run by these politicians, is at historic lows.
Read the full piece at Governing here.