Looking past extremes to find America's core values

By now we all know the map — red states and blue states, red districts and blue districts, red voters and blue voters. The political divide plaguing America seems intractable, unbreachable and enduring. But is it?  

Not according to Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus.  

Using polling data either collected or analyzed by the Knights in recent years, Anderson’s newest book, “Beyond A House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored By Washington, Wall Street, and the Media” (Doubleday, $12), suggests that the country might not be as divided as it seems. Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Anderson about the book and what the data he unpacks in it means for the future of American political discourse. 

Our Sunday Visitor: When you began the polling at the heart of “Beyond a House Divided” what was the central question you sought to answer? 

Carl Anderson: About two years ago we started some periodic polling with the Marist Institute for Public Opinion to get a sense of where the public was on various issues. We did some in terms of Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming trip and some on pro-life questions. It was at that point that we began to get a sense of America’s moral compass. It seemed, in certain ways, to be in pretty good alignment with Catholic values. The book grew out of that. We wanted to look at those findings more closely. 

OSV: Did those findings surprise you? 

Anderson: Definitely. If you’re just going with the typical portrayal of American public opinion that you see in the media, the country seems to be equally divided on a number of controversial issues. But our polling data seemed to suggest that wasn’t necessarily the case, that there is actually a consensus on many of the issues that are typically portrayed as the most divisive: religion in the public square, abortion, marriage, the role of government, and many others. 

OSV: How did your polling manage to find a consensus where others have found no consensus at all?

Anderson: It has a lot to do with the questions and how they’re asked. Consider the pro-life issue. If you just ask people, “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” you’ll see that the majority are pro-life, but only by a couple of percentage points.  

But there’s another question implicit in that one: What do people mean by pro-life and pro-choice? As we delved beyond the labels, it became clear that up to 80 percent of Americans are in favor of restrictions on abortion that go beyond what’s currently allowed under Roe v. Wade. Some Americans think, “I must be pro-choice because I support abortion in the case of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is threatened, and those are choices.” But if that’s what you limit abortion to, you’re limiting it to maybe 4 percent of all abortions. In other words, you actually support restricting 96 percent of all abortions. Is that a pro-life position or a pro-choice position?  

One of the conclusions we drew from that was that self-identified labels are not helpful in conveying an accurate picture of where people are. If we really want to understand what people think, we need to get beyond the labels and ask better questions. 

OSV: Did anything else that your polling turned up surprise you? 

Anderson: Yes, and that was the strong religious sense and strong moral compass we found among a good majority of Americans. And by majority I mean a constitutional majority, or two-thirds. If you have a two-thirds majority, that’s a consensus. We found, for example, that the No. 1 thing Americans want to hand on to their children is faith in God. Similarly, three-fourths of Americans are more concerned about protecting religious expression than restricting it. I don’t think if you look at mainstream media coverage that you’d get that’s sense. 

OSV: Why do you think that is? 

Anderson: Partly it’s the nature of polling. One of the things many of the polling firms do is try to track trends. They’ve been asking a certain question for 20 years and want to keep asking it because they want to show trends in public opinion. But, as I said earlier, if you want to get beyond labels you have to ask different questions and more questions.  

Also, if you’re happy with the status quo, you’re not going to ask questions that might lead to different answers. If, for example you’re happy with Roe v. Wade, then it’s not to your advantage to point out that 80 percent of Americans would like to see something different. It’s better to say that the country is evenly divided. And if you were to ask most of the mainstream media where they come down on the abortion question, you would find that they’re happy with the results of Roe v. Wade. Along with that, the media and political pundits have gotten used to a kind of discourse in which the lay of the land is pretty much set and analysis has become almost routine. 

OSV: So, what are the implications of your findings?

Anderson: In America, political discourse has generally been defined by polar opposites, by the far right and the far left. The center is seen as a compromise that neither side really likes. But when we look at the center not as the 50-yard line between two extremes, but rather as the moral center or moral core of the country, we see that is not such a bad place to be, at least from a Catholic perspective. So why don’t we start the public discourse there? Starting with polar opposites certainly hasn’t brought us much progress. 

OSV: In politics, another word for a centrist is a squish. In other words, someone who stands at the center is equated with someone who doesn’t have a strong moral core and caves on important issues. When you talk about starting at the center, however, you’re talking about something very different, right? 

Anderson: Right. We need to not look at the center as squishy. We need to look at the center as the core, as where we’re centered. What are the core values that are distinctly American? According to the data we found, those values are caring for your neighbor, personal integrity, devotion to marriage and family, belief in God, treating others as you would be treated, protecting human life, valuing human rights. So, let’s start from there. 

If the moral consensus of the country says that we don’t want second- and third-trimester abortions, then let’s work to stop those first. Start the national discussion where people are. Then move forward.  

At the Knights of Columbus, we don’t take the mushy center. We recognize that there’s not a perfect alignment between America’s moral center and Catholic teaching. But common ground does exist. It’s there. So why not focus on it first?

OSV: Given the current political landscape, is that kind of approach really possible in Washington, D.C.? 

Anderson: Well, admittedly part of the problem is that members of Congress — and I don’t mean this in a partisan way — tend to be experts at doing one thing in Washington, then representing what they’re doing in a whole different way in their home districts. But people are catching on to that. It’s one of the prime reasons for the anti-incumbent wave in this cycle and the last couple cycles.  

But it’s also important to remember that it’s not all about Congress. People have to take back their government and insist on better representation. That starts with talking to members of Congress. And if we can’t change their approach through education, then we go to the ballot box. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

America's Moral Consensus (sidebar)

According to polling data highlighted in Carl Anderson’s book “Beyond A House Divided” … 

73 percent of Americans believe the country’s moral compass is pointing in the wrong direction. 

76 percent say it’s more important to practice religion freely than to keep government institutions and property free of religious expression.  

77 percent trust charities more than the government to make wise decisions about how they spend the money people give them. 

79 percent would restrict abortion to a greater extent than the law under Roe v. Wade currently restricts it. 

64 percent think divorce creates more problems than it solves. 

Catholic voters differ from the whole electorate in being less likely to vote for a candidate who favors the death penalty.