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Politicians in Washington may say they are doing the public’s bidding in Congress, but the people lean toward the view that Congress is more polarized than the citizenry.

That is the conclusion of a survey of public attitudes about Congress and public affairs conducted 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 of political science and Rudy professor at IU. “Twenty-six percent felt the public is less polarized; the rest say it’s pretty equal.” Polarization is defined as the movement of members of the two parties to the ideological extremes.

As much as political division among the nation's populace is painted in colors increasingly red and blue, the survey offers hope. Most Americans want Congress to get beyond the divisions.

Carmines, who led the survey effort, reports “a decisive majority — 60 percent — say that members of Congress ‘should compromise with their opponents to get something done,’ rather than ‘stand up for their principles no matter what,’ a view endorsed by 40 percent of the public.

Whether Congress is so divided because of politics or principle, the public is not satisfied.

“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.

So compromise, vital in a democracy, really may not be such a lost concept after all.

Given a choice between the paths of cooperation or legislative gridlock, “the public wants to encourage members of Congress to compromise, so that they can get the government to move forward and deal with some of the major 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.

And more good news: People care about the fundamentals of our democracy.

The 2017 survey asked respondents to rate the relative importance of five principles and practices of our representative government, gauging the public’s 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 that of the president; and checks and balances in the exercise of power by the Congress, the president and the Supreme Court.

“There doesn’t seem to be in our survey any erosion of public support for these principles and practices of representative government,” Carmines said.

“For instance, despite all the talk of “fake news,” a very solid 58 percent majority think that having a free and independent press is ‘very important’ to the functioning of American democracy. Fifty-two percent regard an independent judiciary as ‘very important.’ Almost 50 percent see the Bill of Rights as ‘very important,’ and another 38 percent rate it as ‘important.’ Sixty-one percent regard checks and balances between the branches of government as ‘very important’ to the proper functioning of government."

Count us among those encouraged by the survey's findings and hopeful that Congress will pay attention, even in an election year.

We agree with Carmines: Given the tenor of the times, the survey, particularly support for the principles of our government, should be reassuring to the American people.


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