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Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) ended her 34-year career as a federal legislator Jan 3, 2013. When she announced her decision to step down last March, her reasoning was clear: Politics had become hyper-partisan and mean spirited. Mainers then elected independent Angus King, who ran on a platform of working across the aisle, as Snowe’s successor. Mainers, it seemed, were not ready to give up on centrist politicians.

And now a survey released by the Goldfarb Center at Colby College makes it clear that most Americans agree with Mainers: they are gravely worried about politicians’ inability to find common ground and to work on tough policy questions in respectful, civil ways.

The survey points to a growing willingness among Americans to find compromise solutions. Conducted following the 2012 election, it found 61 percent of Americans prefer that elected officials find compromise solutions rather than stand firm on principles. That figure is up from 45 percent in the spring of 2010, and from 46 percent after the 2010 midterm elections.

Regarding the tone of government, 68 percent of respondents believe American politics has become less civil in the last few years. This figure has grown steadily since the spring of 2010.

Those with the most familiarity with politics are most likely to say things have worsened. Fully 80 percent of Americans over 50 said politics has grown less civil, and 74 percent of those who follow politics closely said the same thing.
 
The 2012 election did not help. Seventy-one percent of respondents said it was either the nastiest they have ever seen or much more negative than most.

The survey was developed by Colby Professor Daniel M. Shea. Since 2010 Shea has spearheaded a series of studies on civility and compromise. He arrived at Colby as a professor of government and director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement in the summer of 2012. Along with Morris Fiorina of Stanford University, Shea is the coeditor of a new collection of essays on civility in politics titled Can We Talk? The Rise of Rude, Nasty, Stubborn Politics (Pearson Longman, 2012).

“The data is rather clear and convincing. We all assumed most Americans were hungry for middle-ground solutions and for respectful politics. We all assumed Senators Snowe and King are right, and our poll confirms it.”

There remain sharp partisan differences, however. A full 73 percent of self-identified Democrats and 60 percent of independents suggested compromise solutions were preferable, but only 38 percent of Republicans said the same. “It’s counterintuitive,” said Shea. “We might expect the losing party to be more willing to bend. The Democrats had a strong showing in the last election, but most conservatives seem unwilling to compromise.”

But will things change? “For change to occur,” asserted Senator Snowe in a Washington Post oped last March, “our leaders must understand that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building—but also a political reward for following these tenets. That reward will be real only if the people demonstrate their desire for politicians to come together after the planks in their respective party platforms do not prevail.”

As one of America’s newest senators as of Jan. 3, Angus King plans to work across the aisle. “It may feel at times that we’re far apart, that answers are just getting further out of reach. But the overwhelming message from this election is that we’re close, and people want us to get closer,” he said after winning the election Nov. 6.

The Goldfarb Center survey was conducted over the phone by SurveyUSA between Nov. 11 and Nov. 19, 2012. Respondents with land lines made up 65 percent of the sample and with cell phones the other 35 percent. In all, 1,534 registered voters were contacted, yielding a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent.

Founded in 2003, the Goldfarb Center at Colby College brings faculty and students together with local, state, national, and international leaders to explore creative, interdisciplinary approaches to the complex challenges facing today’s world.

Complete set of data, along with cross tabulations and graphic displays of the results

For an interview with Dan Shea, contact Ruth Jacobs, pr@colby.edu, 207-859-4353.