America's "Post-Partisan" Era Just A Dream

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This column was written by By Duncan Currie.

Barack Obama won't soon be confused with Mitt Romney. But once you peel away their ideological differences, the two candidates have a similar message: Washington is broken, and I can fix it. Romney fancies exactly that language, touting his corporate background and success in righting the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, while Obama promotes himself as a "post-partisan" candidate who will move beyond the squabbles and grudges of the Baby Boom generation and create "a working majority for change." The assumption is that political polarization can be overcome either by (in Romney's case) managerial expertise or (in Obama's case) moral suasion and lofty idealism.

Would it really be that easy? Of course not. While we should not overstate the depth and severity of the partisan divide in American politics, we should not understate it either. It is a divide based largely (though not exclusively) on ideological differences and policy disputes. Some journalists paint it as an "elite" phenomenon, but the reality is more complex.

According to a Pew Research Center public opinion survey conducted in mid-January, partisan differences on several hot-button issues "increased substantially over the past year." Some 47 percent of Democrats said "dealing with global warming" should be a top priority for U.S. policymakers, compared to only 12 percent of Republicans. On health care, 65 percent of Democrats said that providing insurance to the uninsured should be a top priority, compared to just 27 percent of Republicans; 81 percent of Democrats said the same about reducing health care costs, compared to 53 percent of Republicans. On improving the job situation, addressing poverty, and protecting the environment, the relevant partisan gaps were 33 points, 28 points, and 28 points, respectively, with Democrats voicing more concern. Republicans placed greater emphasis on strengthening the military and dealing with illegal immigration -- the relevant partisan gaps on those issues were 25 points and 21 points, respectively.

Polarization is also affecting Americans' views of the economy (a phenomenon Michael Barone has explored elsewhere). "There continues to be a sizable partisan gap in ratings of the national economy," Pew reports. "Currently, 46 percent of Republicans, but just 24 percent of independents and 15 percent of Democrats, give the economy at least a good rating. During the 1990s, partisan differences on this question were relatively small and inconsistent in direction. Beginning in 2002, a substantial party divide opened up on the question and Democrats and Republicans have remained far apart in their assessments ever since."

Pew's January 2008 poll results indicate that "the party gap has narrowed somewhat, as increasing numbers of moderate and liberal Republicans express negative views of the economy." But the gap between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats remains huge: 54 percent of conservative Republicans still rate the economy as "excellent" or "good," compared to only 10 percent of liberal Democrats.

On the question of George W. Bush's legacy, we see a similar trend among moderate and liberal Republicans. In January 2007, according to Pew, they "were just as upbeat about Bush's legacy as conservative Republicans were." But not anymore. Despite everything, 71 percent of conservative Republicans still believe that Bush's accomplishments will outweigh his failures, compared to 44 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans, 23 percent of independents, 11 percent of moderate and conservative Democrats, and 6 percent of liberal Democrats.

These numbers suggest that polarization is not restricted to a tiny cluster of politicians, interest groups, and media figures. As political scientists Alan I. Abramowitz of Emory University and Kyle L. Saunders of Colorado State University have written, "The argument that polarization in America is almost entirely an elite phenomenon appears to be contradicted by a large body of research by political scientists on recent trends in American public opinion." The extent of polarization can be overblown, and often has been. But America's ideological and partisan divisions "are not confined to a small minority of elected officials and activists -- they involve a large segment of the public and the deepest divisions are found among the most interested, informed, and active members of the public."

For more than 30 years, Abramowitz and Saunders note, the American National Election Studies (NES) survey has asked voters whether they approve of the incumbent president. "According to data from the 2004 NES survey, 90 percent of Republican identifiers approved of Bush's performance and 66 percent approved strongly; in contrast, 81 percent of Democratic identifiers disapproved of Bush's performance and 64 percent disapproved strongly. Evaluations of George W. Bush were more divided along party lines than those of any president since the NES began asking the presidential approval question in 1972."

Yet Abramowitz and Saunders offer some perspective: "The highly polarized evaluations of George Bush in 2004 were not unique -- they represented a continuation of a trend that goes back several decades: the difference between the percentage of Democratic identifiers approving of the president's performance and the percentage of Republican identifiers approving of the president's performance was 36 points for Richard Nixon in 1972, 42 points for Jimmy Carter in 1980, 52 points for Ronald Reagan in 1988, 55 points for Bill Clinton in 1996, and 71 points for George W. Bush in 2004."

Using the results of the NES "issue questions," Abramowitz and Saunders devised a seven-point scale to measure ideological polarization. "The percentage of respondents at the low end of the polarization scale fell from 39 percent during the 1980s to 32 percent in 2002-2004 while the percentage at the high end rose from 24 percent to 33 percent," they report. "These results indicate that ideological thinking is more prevalent among the American public today than in the past."

They also find evidence of a growing correlation between ideology and party identification, which has led to a spike in partisan polarization. "Between 1972 and 2004, the difference between the mean score of Democratic identifiers and the mean score of Republican identifiers on the seven-point liberal-conservative identification scale doubled from 0.9 units to 1.8 units. Given the limited range of this scale -- the standard deviation was 1.46 in 2004 -- this is a substantial increase in polarization."

What's more, polarization tends to rise in tandem with political engagement. "It is mainly the least interested, least informed, and least politically active members of the public who are clustered near the center of the ideological spectrum," Abramowitz and Saunders write. "The most interested, informed, and active citizens are much more polarized in their political views." In other words, even if the 2008 election campaign spurs a rise in political participation, it may not reverse the cycle of polarization.

Which brings us back to Obama. Despite his talk of transcending partisanship, he is hardly running on a centrist, bipartisan policy agenda. According to the National Journal rankings, Obama had the most liberal voting record of any U.S. senator in 2007. When he attacks Hillary Clinton, he typically does so from the left (on Iraq and Iran, for example). Obama already seems to understand the limits of "post-partisanship" quite well.
By Duncan Currie