In 2007, I gamely hoped that Obama’s liberal pragmatism could somehow overcome the deep cultural and political split in the country that had opened up in the Vietnam era and had defined the entire boomer generation. I remain of the view that Obama’s policies have remained moderate – on healthcare, immigration, the deficit, and foreign policy. But the cultural churn of polarization has only intensified in the country at large. In fact, the polarization seems to have intensified in the Obama years, rather than moderating, as a fascinating Pew survey of 10,000 subjects reveals. The GIF at the right can mesmerize after a while, but watch it a few times.
The late 1990s sees a shift by both parties to the relative left, and in the early Bush years, there’s a shift by the GOP to the left as well. Since this is a measure of consistently liberal or conservative positions, it may be scrambled by the response to 9/11. The only three years in which the parties showed signs of moving toward each other were 2000 – 2003. From 2004 on, the GOP moves relentlessly rightward, while the Democrats move to the left more firmly from 2010 onward. Yes the two seem to reinforce each other in their mutual alienation.
But what’s truly depressing is how ideology now trumps virtually everything else in American politics. Geography matters less and less in sustaining mixed and moderate electoral districts; gerrymandering has intensified the process; but deeper cultural shifts help explain a lot of the rest. The urban/rural divide is a chasm; as is the racial one. And ideology seeps deep into everyday life. So inter-marriage between
the Union and the Confederacy the consistent Democrats and the consistent Republicans is becoming rarer:
Three-out-of-ten (30%) consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat and about a quarter (23%) of across-the-board liberals say the same about the prospect of a Republican in-law.
The reason that I don’t think a cold civil war is too hyperbolic is the following chart. It doesn’t just show increased differences between the two parties; it reveals profound and growing antipathy, with each of the respective partisans believing the other is a threat to the country as a whole:
The GOP is more hostile to the Dems today than in the Gingrich revolution year of 1994. What that tells me is that polarization and radicalism can simply create their own mutually reinforcing vortexes of intensity. There’s one kinda bright side to this picture of two nations somehow entangled with one another. And that’s that there is a middle of the country that is not so extreme:
The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.
The trouble is: this group is the least likely to vote or participate in the political process:
Christopher Ingraham puts it succinctly:
Because of their sheer numbers this group of mixed-preference voters could – should! – be the core of a centrist coalition. But because of their disengagement, their influence on the political process is diminished relative to the more partisan voices in the mix. This tells me that polarization may be driven as much by apathy at the middle of the political spectrum as it is by energy at the more raucous ideological ends. Instead of a silent majority we have a silent plurality – and as Washington goes to war with itself, it’s not paying attention.
And you wonder why cable news is now so shrill. It’s not just the fault of Roger Ailes. It’s also us.