When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, my father would follow my mother around the house before Election Day, lecturing her to vote Republican. "I don't know who I'm voting for yet," my mother would lie, cheerily. "And it's a secret ballot, don't forget." Those exchanges — funny, good-natured, even sweet — bring home to me that while politics has always divided us, today our differences run deeper, wider and depressingly more bitter. Partisanship rules, from the halls of Congress to the kitchen table. We've traded in presenting facts for scoring points, precision for volume, dialogue for sarcasm. Or we've just shut up, ceding the floor to the most virulent.
So what does this mean for Election Day? Expect the nation to feel even less united. Expect another divided Congress, in numbers and in ideology. And expect the presidential winner, whether it's Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, to talk passionately about cooperation and bipartisanship. Just don't expect anyone to believe it.
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The latest installment of a Pew Research Center tracking survey showed that Americans are more polarized in their values and basic beliefs than at any time in the survey's 25 years.
"Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides," Pew said. "The average partisan gap has nearly doubled … from 10 percentage points in 1987 to 18 percentage points in the new study."
Other surveys show a similar hardening of positions. People who vote Democratic are more likely now to identify themselves as "liberal" than they were 30 years ago, while people who vote Republican are far, far more likely to identify themselves as "conservative."
The word "moderate" as a self-identifier is losing popularity.
This attitudinal shift shows up most clearly in polling since 2000, starting with the contested election of George W. Bush and then gaining steam with Barack Obama's victory four years ago. Vitriol once uncommon in polite political discourse ("fascist," "war criminal," even "Nazi") became easy rhetoric for some Bush critics. And for those who cannot abide Obama, "socialist" and "dictator" are among the more polite insults.
Gallup approval rating surveys show how much Obama and Bush have in common. In the eyes of their party stalwarts, they could do no wrong. But to members of the other party, they're abject failures.
In 2004, the year Bush was re-elected, his average approval rating from Republicans was 91 percent, while from Democrats it was only 15 percent. That party difference is 76 percentage points.
Now, through October 2012, Obama has averaged positive marks from 85 percent of Democrats and only 10 percent of Republicans. That's a 75-point disparity based on party affiliation.
Go back to Clinton, George H.W. Bush or even Reagan, and you'll see the disparity in Gallup polls fall to 60 and below. And Jimmy Carter, who today is a punch line for the right? In his last year in office, before losing to Reagan, 24 percent of Republicans approved of his performance. Twenty-four percent! (Sadly for Carter, only 53 percent of Democrats did.)
Some centrist observers point with hope to the decline in those who identify as Republican or Democrat. That is true. The parties are shrinking, according to Gallup, Pew and other polling organizations.
But here's the flip side: Those who identify as independents are increasingly less engaged in the electoral process. Those who do identify by party increasingly hold the hardest ideological positions their party offers. And those who lean the farthest on their party's ideological spectrum are by far the most likely of any Americans to vote. This is especially true for Republicans, which helps explain why the Tea Party movement wields such influence.
Writing for the FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times, Nate Silver teased apart data to show that over the last decade or more, the ideological identification of people who voted for Republicans in Congress has shifted measurably. In 2002, less than half of Republican voters called themselves "conservative." In the mid-term Republican rout of 2010, two-thirds described themselves as such.
"This is why Republican politicians find it difficult to compromise," Silver wrote. "Republican members of Congress have a mandate to remain steadfast to the conservatives who are responsible for electing them."
The numbers are less striking on the Democratic side, with self-described moderates still making up the plurality of the party. But the direction is the same.
The result is that the political middle, which itself has been drifting rightward since Reagan won the presidency, can be a cold, lonely place.
I know I don't talk politics much anymore. I'm wary of unintentionally offending someone or, worse, uncovering a true believer who will rattle off a string of easy absolutes about what's wrong with this country and how to fix it.