IU Survey: In Polarized Political Climate, Public Looks to Congress for Compromise

Monday, February 26, 2018

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Politicians in Washington may say they are doing the public’s bidding in Congress, but the people lean towards the view that Congress is more polarized than the citizenry, according to 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.

Indiana University has been conducting its public survey for more than a decade; the annual effort is overseen by Professor Carmines.

Another key finding in the latest survey, Carmines reports, is that “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.

“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.” said Carmines.

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.

The 2017 survey also 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,” said Carmines. Given the tenor of the times, that should be reassuring to the American people.

“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.

“And even though Congress’s performance gets an extremely low rating from the public — only 23 percent rated Congress as ‘very’ or even ‘moderately’ responsive to people like them— the poll still found 38 percent saying that it is ‘very important’ for Congress to have power equal to the president.” 

State legislatures came out way ahead of Congress in several survey questions that posed a comparison between state and federal government.

Asked “How responsive do you think that your state legislature is to the concerns of people like you?” 52 percent said “very” or “moderately” responsive.

When asked, “Should the federal government or state governments exercise more power in terms of policymaking?” 61 percent preferred state governments. To the question, “In general, do you believe that members of state legislatures or members of the U.S. Congress are more ethical in conducting their official duties?” 71 percent chose state legislators.

And when asked, “If you had a problem, are you more likely to seek assistance in solving the problem from your state or the federal government?” 76 percent said state government.

The public’s more favorable view of state governments runs parallel with survey data showing that Americans pay comparatively less attention to state government than to happenings in Washington.

When asked, “Do you pay more attention to news about the federal government or your state government?” only 30 percent said they follow state government news more 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 1000 people conducted in November and December 2017 by the internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.

To see the survey questions and results, go to https://corg.indiana.edu/2017-public-opinion-survey-data.