Back when I attended journalism school in the early 1990s, we were frequently exhorted to “find the drama” in whatever we were covering. Drama sold papers, and if you wanted your precious byline on the exalted front page, you needed to write stories that elevated conflict and emotion. Even in my youthful ambition, I felt vaguely uneasy with this approach, seeing at times that journalists were exploiting their subjects, their audience or both. Cloaking the facts in drama often distorted those facts.
But at least we were raised to have some fidelity to the facts. I can’t say the same for the talking heads on cable news nowadays. They’re good at finding drama in their quest for higher ratings but less interested in the facts than they ought to be. And Americans spend a lot of their civic bandwidth plugged into cable news.
If you listen to the drama mongers enough, you might start to believe that the grimacing, fire-lit mobs of the on-screen extremes are representative of the disagreements among everyday Americans. I suspect that the more we trust in this narrative of conflict — rather than facts and our own lived experience — the more true it may become.
The drama-mongers divide our states ineluctably into reds and blues, with a handful of purples. But the truth is less dramatic. With the exceptions of only two states (West Virginia and Wyoming), neither major candidate in the recent presidential contest won more than two-thirds of the vote. In California, every third voter you’ll meet went for the Republican candidate. In Idaho, every third voter you’ll meet went for the Democrat. Most other states were more evenly split.
Drama-mongers also suggest the parties are hopelessly cleft along racial and ethnic lines. But the recent election undramatically showed a trend in the opposite direction. The Republican presidential candidate made major gains among Hispanic voters (with more than one-third in his column) and won a greater percentage of the African-American vote than any Republican candidate since 1960. A greater percentage of white men went for the Democrat compared to the last election.
The drama-mongers will plead their case by pointing out that we’re divided within our states. Let’s explore this view by taking Utah as an example. It is true that our state has become more ideologically divided on national hot-button issues. The recent Utah Foundation report, “Red, Gray and Blue: The Issues that Unite and Divide Utah Voters,” found that Republicans and Democrats in Utah have become more polarized on those abstract issues.
But how divided are we on the issues right in front of us? Utah Foundation’s 2020 Utah Priorities Project survey found general agreement among voters that the top five priorities for the state are: healthcare costs/accessibility; taxes/government spending; K-12 education; jobs/the economy; and public health. Utahns across the demographics of age, sex and ethnicity put all five priorities somewhere in their top 10. These priorities are even common across political parties, with the only exception being that Democrats did not prioritize state taxes and government spending. And there is almost perfect agreement among Republicans, unaffiliated voters and Democrats as to the relative importance of both K-12 education and housing affordability issues.
Interestingly, Utah Republicans and Democrats also appear to agree that partisanship and division is not a top concern. Only the unaffiliated voters see division as a priority issue. However, they make up one-third of the electorate, so their view on this does add up.
Yes, there are differences between Republicans and Democrats in terms of what matters to them. For instance, Republicans worry more about taxes, the economy, growth management and crime. Democrats are more worried about racial issues, public health, homelessness and climate change.
Still, there’s an awful lot of common ground at the state and local levels on issues we understand and can wrestle because they’re right before us. Though it may not satisfy our lust for the national drama, it is well worth surveying this common ground for real solutions to real problems. The payoff is far greater than burning all your civic energy on a fanciful place called Washington, D.C., where the politics too often resemble a Punch and Judy act — and the cable news channels are all too happy to exploit the puppet-show drama for higher ratings.