America's Fracturing Electorate

June 13, 2014 Topic: Domestic Politics Region: United States

America's Fracturing Electorate

Why America's politics are becoming more polarized—and what it means for the future.

The Pew Research Center, or PRC, is in the process of exploding one of the most persistent and misguided myths to overtake American political discourse in many a long year—the idea, bandied around with abandon of late, that Washington has somehow divorced itself from the American people in becoming polarized and dysfunctional. An extensive Pew survey now makes clear that the polarization emanates from the people themselves, and Washington’s dysfunction is merely a reflection of that political reality.

The Pew survey, based on a scientific sample of some 10,000 Americans on a wide array of political views and values, was described on Thursday in a Wall Street Journal article by Alan Murray, PRC president. As described by Murray, the survey results demonstrate not only that political polarization in America isn’t merely a growing reality of national political sentiment, but a product also of deepening political passions across the political spectrum—and not just from the right.

“The majority of Americans may not be getting the politics they want,” writes Murray. “But growing minorities have taken clear sides in the political battle, see high stakes in the outcome and are filled with passionate intensity.”

The Pew data, which rely on questions Pew has posed to Americans for two decades, indicate that the percentage of American voters who adhere consistently to liberal or conservative views has doubled since 1994, from 10 percent to 21 percent. More than twice as many Republicans and Democrats express a “very unfavorable” opinion of the other party as did so two decades ago. Further, a majority of these “strong partisans” believe the other side poses a “threat to the nation’s well being.”

Pew’s ten-question index used to assess ideological views demonstrated that liberal thinking has coalesced at least as much as conservative thinking. Democrats holding consistently liberal views have more than quadrupled in twenty years, from 5 percent to 23 percent. Republicans with similarly consistent conservative views have fluctuated in number over the same period—13 percent in 1994, 6 percent in 2004 and 20 percent this year.

As Murray writes, “Those in the ideological wings remain a minority. But they are a growing minority, and more than in recent history they are driving American politics.” He notes they are more likely to vote, make campaign contributions, contact members of Congress or work in campaigns. And 38 percent of politically engaged Democrats now hold consistently liberal views, up from just 8 percent in 1994, while 33 percent of politically engaged Republicans are consistent conservatives, up from 23 percent in 1994 and just 10 percent in 2004.

Murray explains that the Pew surveys to date don’t address the causes for this “political fracturing of the American public.” He notes that speculation has focused on the rise in partisan media and negative political messaging, the coming together of like-minded people through social media, congressional gerrymandering and closed political primaries. But whatever the cause, the phenomenon is clear. The electorate, and not just Washington, has been fracturing—and the pressure is coming from both sides of the political spectrum.

This debunks a great deal of commentary of recent years, reflected perhaps most starkly in a 2012 book entitled It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. The authors wrote, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The Mann-Ornstein thesis was based on two perceptions that have been exploded by the Pew study—that the problem was largely a Washington phenomenon and reflected a disconnect between the politics of Washington and the politics of the country; and that it was largely a product of one party that had gone berserk.

It is perhaps easier psychologically to view this polarization through the prism of villainy, as Mann and Ornstein do. But it doesn’t enhance one’s understanding of what’s going on in American politics.

What’s going on is the emergence of issues and sensibilities that are driving deep wedges through the American polity. These issues aren’t manufactured by the people who may happen to disagree with you, but rather are a product of our time and of events and developments that the American people view in divergent ways—and with growing intensity and alarm. These include social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the role of government in the economy (particularly with the nation now grappling with the Affordable Care Act), the role of America in the world, the keys to the nation’s economic well-being—and most of all, immigration.

Immigration represents the epicenter of this polarization and offers an interesting picture of how one side seeks to delegitimize the other, a la Mann and Ornstein. After Virginia’s representative Eric Cantor lost his primary reelection bid this week—in large part, it seems, from the immigration issue—Democratic representative Steve Israel of New York said the result showed that the GOP was, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “out of the mainstream of most voters.” Said Israel: “I always knew the Republican Party was veering to the right. I never thought they’d be pulled this far to the right.”

How does it become a “far right” position to wish to protect U.S. borders from illegal immigration? And how does it become a “mainstream” position to accept such illegal incursions as a normal and acceptable phenomenon of the world we live in? Even as Virginians in Cantor’s district were voting, the country was beginning to grapple with the phenomenon of thousands of child immigrants flowing across the U.S. southern border, apparently in response to President Obama’s 2012 campaign statement that he would stop deporting illegal immigrants who came here as children. Though the promise did not apply to those arriving after 2007, it sent an alluring message to children of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who were very poor and very desirous of a new life.

According to one report, the number of illegally crossing children apprehended in the United States annually before 2011 was about 6,000. Since October 2013, about “50,000 unaccompanied children have illegally moved into the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley,” and next year, the total could reach over 140,000. Rather than send these illegals back across the border, the Obama administration is transporting them into the American heartland, creating processing facilities in California, Arizona and Oklahoma. The administration has asked for a $2 billion appropriation next year to handle the situation.

Arizona governor Jan Brewer has taken aim at the administration for these policies, which bid to become another American political flashpoint and another political fiasco for the president. “This is a crisis of the federal government’s creation,” she said, “and the fact that the border remains insecure—now apparently intentionally—while this operation continues full-steam ahead is deplorable.”

This is polarization in distilled form, just the sort of thing that generates the level of political asperity seen in the Pew study—and the kind of political sputtering we’ve been seeing in Washington for some time.

Our system of government is a presidential system, for good or ill, and history tells us that times such as these, when polarization and governmental dysfunction reign, can be ameliorated only through presidential leadership, the kind that creates new political paradigms that breed new clusters of political thinking and thus, new political coalitions. No president can succeed in this if he takes on the thinking of Mann-Ornstein or the antipodal outlook of the extreme Tea Party adherents. Until such a man or woman emerges, the polarization reflected in the Pew study—and Washington’s resultant breakdown—will continue to intensify.

Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.