Steve Chapman

Barack Obama held out hope of overcoming partisan divides, lowering the temperature and bringing Americans together. How's that working out? Not well, it appears. One year after he was elected, Americans look more polarized than ever.

In a special House election in upstate New York, a Conservative Party candidate, backed by Sarah Palin, took on a moderate Republican whom his supporters called a "radical leftist," forced her to withdraw and then lost to the Democrat. It's entirely possible that in the Senate, not a single Republican will vote for an administration-supported health insurance overhaul.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., laments that "it makes news when Democrats and Republicans do something of substance together and that truly is a shame." From cable TV news channels, you get the impression of a country not so much politically divided as verging on civil war.

Here's a solution to that problem: Stop watching cable TV news channels and listening to politicians. Using them as a gauge of how divided we are is like using the National Hockey League to estimate the level of violence in America.

Most Americans aren't rabid liberals or fanatical conservatives. Gallup recently found that more people call themselves conservative than liberal or moderate. But other polls contradict it. According to a 2008 survey by the National Opinion Research Center, when you give them more options -- extremely liberal, liberal, slightly liberal, moderate, slightly conservative, conservative or extremely conservative -- you find that the largest ideological group is moderates, with 37.3 percent compared to 34.5 percent for the three conservative groups combined.

Add up the moderates and those who are only slightly liberal or slightly conservative and those who don't know -- those clustered in the middle of the road -- and you've got about two-thirds of the citizenry. As political scientists Morris Fiorina of Stanford's Hoover Institution and Samuel Abrams of Harvard put it, "the American electorate in 2008 is much better described as centrist than polarized."

Moreover, they note in a forthcoming paper, the public is not getting more polarized. "In terms of their ideological orientations," they note, "the American electorate looks about the same as it did when Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated Republican Jerry Ford in the not very polarized 1976 election" -- Carter being conservative by Democratic standards and Ford moderate by GOP standards of the day.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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