The weeks leading up to Independence Day this year have brought highs and lows on the national unity front. Juneteenth celebrations nationwide took hold as an established Federal holiday and Pride Month seemed bigger and more widespread than ever on a global scale.
Simultaneously, half the American population saw their health care rights of the last five decades challenged with the overturn of Roe V. Wade, and the January 6 hearings have brought into the public light testimony showing that a President felt he was greater than the Constitution.
The Vanderbilt University Project on Unity and American Democracy has initiated a statistical measure of national unity: The Vanderbilt Unity Index (VUI). The VUI measures five factors to build its index, measured quarterly: national Presidential approval, ideological extremism, social trust, Congressional polarization, and protests and civil unrest.
The trends over the last 40 years are fascinating. The 80s were a comparatively unified decade. The 10s were not. The general trend from 1994-2022 is downward. The most noticeable downward slide and lowest quarterly scores occur between 2016-2021. Anyone who has been alive since 1981 should not be surprised by these trends.
It's key to note that "unified" does not mean "unanimous." The VUI measures both sides of the aisle, so to speak, and considers the Bernie Sanders Effect along with the MAGA movement. If you read the easily-accessible-online report, the Congressional polarization measure is one of the most stark graphically.
The 1994 (Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, i.e., "we are fighting every point from here on out") and 2010 Congressional sessions (GOP retakes the House in midterm elections during the President Obama's first term) show sharp upticks in polarization, which the VUI measures by comparing the median Democrat in the House with the median Republican, vote by vote.
With 100 being a measure equal to complete polarization, that is, no agreement on any vote, the latest polarization measure is 86%. In 1981 it was 63%, meaning the House of Representatives could vote together across the aisle at least one third of the time.
Why does this matter in New Mexico? Because we see this play out in our primaries, election cycle after election cycle. More and more New Mexicans are leaving the major parties every year. This implies dissatisfaction with the ideological extremism both parties have embraced.
When the moderates leave the major parties, it creates a vicious cycle. With more ideological extremists voting in party primaries, candidates naturally campaign on fringe issues. It's that simple. It results in candidates being further distanced from the middle of the electorate, and growing distrust across the voter base.
Perfect unity has never been part of our history. The founders of the United States crafted our government with that in mind. So far, we have withstood a number of tests over nearly two and half centuries.
Since 1981, the VUI has averaged 62%. Our lowest measure was in late 2017 at 35%. The latest measure is 57% and we are on an upward trend.
My hope is that this trend manifests itself in conversations. We don't have to agree but we do have to have discussions around the issues confronting us most immediately: inflation; crime; national security; women's health; fuel security; cybersecurity and many others.
Honest conversations are what we need from our elected leaders. We can start by setting an example. I thank all my readers who write in and tell me what you think! Our email conversations are a high point of my week, even when we are debating a point. I appreciate you more than you know.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. A Republican, she lives amicably with her Democratic husband north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.