Steve Chapman

So why does everything feel so bitterly divided? One reason is that the elected officials of the two major parties have definitely gotten more ideologically uniform. A generation ago, we had liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, two species that are nearly extinct. In 1965, half of House Republicans voted in favor of creating Medicare. No such mass crossover this time.

Among ordinary people who identify with one party or the other, however, there is far more diversity of views than among either party's leaders. Gun owners and evangelical Christians are supposed to be repelled by elitist liberal Democrats, but Fiorina and Abrams report that nearly 40 percent of gun owners voted for Obama, along with more than a quarter of white evangelical Protestants. Though Republicans are the anti-abortion party, one-third of Democrats are closer to the GOP position than to that of their own party.

Strictly ideological parties mean most people have little choice but to vote for ideologues. Faced with a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican, write Abrams and Fiorina, voters "tend to vote for the candidate on their side of the spectrum, although they might well have preferred more moderate choices."

Another reason for the acidic climate is the rise of cable TV networks that thrive by taking ideological sides, day in and day out. Twenty years ago, they didn't exist. Today, watching Fox News, you get the impression that huge numbers of Americans regard Obama as a Stalinist. Switch on MSNBC, and you would assume that most people want Dick Cheney sent to Guantanamo.

You would be mistaken. Fox News averages just 2.6 million viewers on a typical weeknight, or less than 1 percent of Americans. MSNBC does even worse, with 831,000 per night. The three major network newscasts, which offer less overt bias, pull in a combined total of more than 20 million viewers each evening.

The average American citizen, contrary to myth, is neither very angry, nor very far to the left or the right, nor inclined to treat anyone with different opinions as a mortal enemy. In a cluttered media environment, the most extreme voices tend to attract so much attention that it's easy to forget something important: Most people aren't listening.

Steve Chapman

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

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