The Partisan Partition

You may have caught political analysts and sworn frenemies Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein on the Daily Show on June 3 discuss their new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. The book talks about the divide among politicians in America and how today’s congressional behavior differs significantly from years past, specifically due to the Republican promise of thwarting the US government under President Obama using whatever means necessary. The idea is that, come November, Republicans will point at the President, exclaiming, “See? This man has done nothing to help YOU, the voters!” It’s a really sly move since there’s really no way that Democrats can easily or simply explain away this strategy during an election season. Especially when you factor in the fact that President Obama’s latest speeches have been written at an 8th grade reading level due to a dwindling electorate average IQ (or so I assume).

Last month, Pew Research Center released a report that explores a drastic increase in “partisan polarization” in recent years. According to the report, self-described Democrats and self-described Republicans today now average 18 percentage points different from one another on a questionnaire of 48 values, almost twice as different from one another as they were back in 1987 (see chart below). This basically means that Democrats differ more ideologically from Republicans today than they did 25 years ago. However, whether this increase is actually significant seems to vary among political scientists and pollsters.

Chart: "Widening Partisan Differences in Political Views: 1987-2012"

There are other factors to consider. For example, the general makeup of the two major parties is shifting. Today, Republicans are twice as likely to consider themselves “conservative” than “moderate,” while Democrats are equally likely to label themselves “liberal” as “moderate.” Members of the Democratic Party represent a wider range of political ideals, from moderate to ultra-liberal, while the true colors of the GOP range from moderate-conservative to ultra-conservative. The Pew survey revealed that nearly three-quarters of Republicans are dissatisfied with their own party’s ability to support “traditional positions” on issues; in contrast, 58 percent of Democrats feels that way about the Democratic Party.

Another notable statistic suggests that divides among people of differing demographic measures such as gender, religiosity (it’s a word, look it up), level of education, and income have remained relatively stable since 1987, while the percentage point difference between Republican and Democrat has risen steadily (see chart below).

Chart: "Partisan Gap Grows While Other Divides Are Stable" by Pew Research Center

The survey also looked at the difference between Republicans’ and Democrats’ views toward certain issues. Some of the more substantial leaps in partisanship include environmental concerns, with a 5 percent difference in 1992 and a 39 percent difference today; immigration, 4 percent in 2002 and 24 percent in 2012; and government scope, 6 percent in 1987 and 33 percent today. (Ironically, in the category of “political engagement,” Republicans and Democrats have remained almost completely consistent over the years compared with one another, with a 4 percent difference in 1987 and a 5 percent difference in 2012. That pretty much says it all.) The largest gap between Democrats and Republicans involves the social safety net. One of the agree/disagree questions in the survey asked whether the “government should take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” In 1987, 79 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans agreed; in 2012, those numbers are 75 percent and 40 percent. (Try not to be shocked that 60 percent of Republicans feel that the government shouldn’t help those who can’t help themselves.) In other words, the percentage-point gap more than doubled itself in 25 years, with the most drastic divide beginning in 2007 (also not surprising).

So, are we more partisan than we were 25 years ago?

According to Pew Research, we are. And if you asked your average voters…what might they say? That Americans of differing party affiliations disagree on issues more often than they agree? That those rednecks in South Carolina are trying to push us back into the ’50s? That the heathens in San Francisco and Boston have lost sight of any morals they ever had to begin with?

Of course we disagree on those fronts. But we all support our Armed Forces with every flag on every porch across America. We typically consider the United States to be the best country on the face of the earth comparatively, regardless of its many flaws. We all balk at the thought of being labeled “un-American.” However much we mutually resent our faulty, slow-moving, constantly-conflicted political system in Washington, we recognize that this republican, capitalist system is the best option we’ve got. Somehow the notion that American kids are getting fatter and dumber than the rest of the world’s kids doesn’t make us love the USA any less than we did yesterday. We all, in our heart of hearts, seek to preserve America, though we each have our own ways of how this can be accomplished, of course. And, when it comes down to it, we are all genuinely proud to be American.

Personally, I wonder where all the fun would be in a system that weren’t so partisan. 😉