Voices From the Middle
“As freedom is our most precious national asset, I am convinced that apathy—indifference—is our greatest national sin.”—J. Howard Pew, 1953
Fostering a robust democracy has been part of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ mission from the beginning. One of the latest ways we have fulfilled this goal is with the Pew Research Center’s look at who is participating in the political process, how these voters make their voices heard, and what their effect is on America’s priorities and civic discourse. The rigorous 78-page report, Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life, documents some troubling trends. Thirty percent of adults, for example, believe that supporters of the opposing party’s policies are “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”
As freedom is our most precious national asset, I am convinced that apathy—indifference—is our greatest national sin. J. Howard Pew, 1953
This polarization has a real impact on the choices we make as a country. The report found that the loudest voices in policy debates are at either end of the political spectrum—and that those voters are the most likely to turn out on Election Day, debate politics on social media, contribute to campaigns, write their legislators and members of Congress, and try to push policy in one direction or another.
But another important finding of the report is that roughly two-thirds of Americans are open to compromise and consensus-building. These voices from the middle are not indifferent to the challenges that confront our nation, but many are turned off by the partisanship, gridlock, and rancor that too often characterize modern politics. They want unbiased and fact-based information—the kind that Pew seeks to provide—and they believe that the two sides of the political divide should find common ground and focus on the ties that bind us together as a nation. You can read more about Pew’s report on polarization in the cover story of this issue of Trust.
There are inspiring examples throughout American history in which people of goodwill have found ways to forge agreement and change the nation for the better—even when the political divide appeared unbridgeable. In 1920, for example, women were still denied the right to vote. The opponents of women’s suffrage were vocal and powerful, and passage of the 19th Amendment took years of hard work, becoming the law of the land only when Tennessee ratified the amendment by one vote. It was cast by Harry T. Burn, who was 24 years old and in 1918 had become the youngest person elected to the Legislature in state history. He planned to oppose suffrage until he received a letter from his mother, who wrote: “I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet.”
The 19th Amendment was an important step toward making our nation a more perfect union. But there was much more work to do. That’s why decades later, Rosa Parks—another voice from the middle with deeply held convictions—helped to launch the modern civil rights movement by defying segregation. Like Burn’s mother, she proved that one person lifting her voice and standing by her convictions can strengthen our democracy and foster change that benefits all Americans.
Throughout our history, Pew has sought out these collaborators: the men and women who pull disparate voices together to make our democracy stronger. In 2014, our partners in progress sometimes came from government but often were the small-business owners, parents, and motivated advocates who work to encourage change in the public interest.
For example, Pew worked with “supermoms” such as Everly Macario, who lost a son to a drug-resistant infection, to help win new guidelines for the use of antibiotics to maintain their effectiveness. We joined with outdoorsmen, conservationists, and local merchants who live and work near some of our nation’s most special places to create seven new wilderness areas under the Wilderness Act. We collaborated with federal regulators and the financial industry to protect consumers by designing clear and simple disclosure documents for prepaid cards. And we joined fishermen, environmentalists, indigenous populations, and federal policymakers to ensure that Alaska’s Bristol Bay remains pristine. Details about these accomplishments, and other highlights of the past year, can be found in “Looking Back: The Milestones of 2014.”
All of my colleagues at Pew thank our partners and are grateful to have contributed to the collective good with these successes. But we’re not focused on our rearview mirror. In “Looking Forward and Making Connections,” you can read about our agenda for 2015, one that brings people together and centers on improving government performance, protecting the environment, supporting American families, informing the public, and invigorating civic life in our hometown of Philadelphia.
At Pew we strive to never be indifferent; we seek to make a meaningful difference. We must continue to focus on our shared challenges and opportunities while learning from one another and remaining open to differences in opinion and approach. When we all work together, we can make the kind of progress we could never achieve alone.