Lee Hamilton: Liberals vs. conservatives – a real divide or just labels?

One of the more striking political developments of the last few years has been the partisan sorting of American voters. It used to be that both the Republican and Democratic parties covered some ideological ground. Now, it’s so habitual for conservatives to make their home in the GOP and liberals in the Democratic Party that party and ideological labels stand in for one another.

Still, you have to be careful. Because when you’re talking about something as complex as Americans’ political beliefs, there’s really no such thing as uniformity.

I often run into conservatives who support liberal positions on one issue or another, and vice versa. It’s very easy for political elites to overestimate the degree to which ideological categories actually apply to real people.

True, the divisions that separate liberals and conservatives are real. On social issues, many find themselves sharply divided: over same-sex relationships, the place of marriage and family in our society, and, of course, abortion. This last may be the most divisive issue of all. Liberals tend to have more tolerance for abortion; very few conservatives I encounter have that feeling, although a few do.

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And they are sharply divided over the role of government and government intervention in the lives of Americans on economic matters. This is in part a conflict over welfare and the degree to which government should be involved in programs to alleviate poverty or to protect working people from the bumps, bruises, and hardships dealt out by the national economy. 

Yet even here, the divisions are not as sharp as they used to be. Over and over, I’m reminded that learning a voter’s views on one issue may tell you next to nothing about his or her views on others – or may even mislead you.

It’s pretty common these days to bemoan the ideological divisions evident in our politics, especially when the differences are weaponized for partisan purposes. But I’d argue that far from being debilitating, the political debate they give rise to is a sign of the vigor of the political system.

Sure, trying to deal with deep-seated differences is extremely difficult for a politician. But it’s also part of the attraction and the challenge of politics. And if you see voters as the complex opinion-holders they really are, common ground may not be as impossible to find as it can seem at first glance.

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Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.