Something is wrong with American politics and it’s not partisanship. It’s phony unifiers who mawkishly promise bonhomie when their true aim is to align just enough of their partisans and partisan-leaning independents to win. The promise of unity is a cynical tool to win elections, not a governing approach.
Not that I have anything against cynicism. What I object to is the opportunistic ruse.
We’ve had a little thought experiment in America for the past 12 years with presidential nominees and presidents who promised to unify. Texas Gov. George W. Bush started saying this in 1999 as he sought the GOP nomination. Then-Sen. Barack Obama told the Democratic convention in 2004 “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America,” which morphed into the allegedly post-partisan politics of “hope and change” in 2008.
According to the latest data from the Pew Research Center, partisan differences widened and accelerated at a larger scale and faster rate from 1999 to 2012 than at any time since Pew started recording such metrics in 1987. Pew has asked 48 so-called values questions of Republicans and Democrats every year since and built elaborate subsets of their answers based on sex, race, ethnicity, age, and income. From 1987 to 1999, the partisan difference on all 48 questions shifted by about 1 percentage point between surveys. In 1987, the divide between Republicans and Democrats was 10 points. In 1999, it was 11 points.
Now, let’s track the march of the partisans (nearly as relentless as the March of the Penguins, but without the soothing Morgan Freeman narration) since then. The partisan divide in 2002 was 11 points. In 2003, it was 14 points. In 2009, it was 16 points. Now it’s 18 points. It remained effectively static for 15 years, and then nearly doubled.
If the measure of this “unity” experiment’s success is a nation even slightly more unified than it was before, it’s a failure. If the measure is a nation just as divided as it was before, it’s a double-secret failure. If the measure is a nation only slightly more polarized than it was before, we’re stumbling through the land of Kent (Flounder) Dorfman from Animal House. Yes, we’re getting fat, drunk, and stupid on unity moonshine.
Just to recall, Bush won reelection 2004 with a brass-knuckled bid to draw true-believers to the polls. He attracted other voters, of course, but the foundation of his victory lay in a maniacal pursuit of persuadable Republican voters. Bush boosted his turnout from 2000 to 2004 by 10.1 million votes this way—with partisans first. Poor John Kerry. The Democratic nominee bested Al Gore’s 2000 popular vote total by 6.3 million votes and lost. If Obama wins a second term, he will do so following the Bush model of partisan mobilization. Team Obama is micro-targeting and motivating known and persuadable partisans via social media and all traditional means that Bush used.
Opportunists preach unity to win the first time and practice partisanship to win the second time. They have figured it out. It’s time the rest of us did as well.
And while we’re at it, can we dispense with the fiction of nonaligned independents? Yes, there are some. The Pew data show there are about as many as when it started tracking party identification trends in 1990. But many voters who call themselves independents (38 percent, according to Pew) operationally lean right or left. Remember those numbers on partisan division for Pew’s 48 values questions? Look at the numbers when you add Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning “independents” to the mix. The partisan divide shrinks from 18 points to … 16 points.
Here’s another bit of data. On Pew’s four key government “values” questions (maintaining the social safety net, government regulation, and environmental protection, and ensuring equal opportunity) hostility among Republican-leaning independents tracked almost perfectly with GOP partisans. Not surprisingly, support for these values among Democratic-leaning independents followed the Democrats.
We’re all partisans now.
Division, for lack of a better word, is good. That’s the Gordon Gekko side of politics. Division forces people to listen to an argument and take sides. Silly and front-loaded appeals to unity and post-partisanship fog the mind, delay action, and deepen mistrust. Over time, voters begin to understand they are being deceived. People take stands for a reason and want the politicians they send to Washington do the same (71 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats want more partisan fealty, not less). This is not inconsistent with democracy. It is democracy. That’s the cynical secret of presidential leadership.
It’s time the rest of us got the joke and started demanding honest calls for honest division.
Divide us, please.
This article appears in the June 6, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.