As the U.S. Constitution was being printed in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin took a deep breath and wrote to his sister, "We have, however, done our best, and it must take its chance." It quickly became apparent, however, that the document had a polarizing effect: Mercantile interests in cities embraced it; farmers opposed it. Franklin was certainly acquainted with the scientific concept of polarization -- in fact, he discovered electrical polarity- -- and he and the other Founders understood that the tendency of similarly charged particles to repel one another to opposite poles applies to humans as well as to the rest of nature. n After the Constitution was ratified, George Washington, a Virginia planter who was an exception to the polarized view, wrote hopefully: "Since the bond of Union is now complete and we once more consider ourselves as one family ... we must drive far away the demon of party spirit and local reproach."
But it was not to be. Urban-rural rivalries remained. And many of the underlying quarrels over race, gender, class, sex, privacy, and religion that vexed these shores in Washington's time are with us still. The Constitution and its role in preserving freedom is at the center of those arguments. So is partisanship.
As 2006 dawned, Republican George W. Bush was invoking his constitutional oath to defend the United States as justification for monitoring Americans' phone calls without any court's assent. Last week, Senate Democrats aggressively questioned Bush's Supreme Court nominee about his reading of the Constitution. Political parties have always acted as proxies in these clashes, and for that reason partisanship has its defenders.
But too much partisanship obscures issues, instead of clarifying them. Pure partisanship leaves no room for compromise, and does little other than sustain itself. Almost all who are thinking about polarization in the political system these days -- undergraduate students taking their first course about the Civil War, as well as Ivy League professors studying government full-time -- are reaching similar, pessimistic conclusions: We Americans are pulling apart.
The Not-So-Great Divide
Dwight Pitcaithley knows firsthand that the wartime words of America's politicians and citizens have consequences. He learned that lesson as a U.S. marine in Vietnam, where he was wounded in combat, and as chief historian of the National Park Service, where he dodged flak for interpreting the meaning of the Civil War at America's great battlefield monuments.
For many, the Civil War's underlying causes still strike a nerve. So does the divisive political rhetoric that helped to set off the bloody struggle between the American states. Knowing that, Pitcaithley, who is now retired from the federal government and is teaching the Civil War at New Mexico State University, goes six weeks into the course before getting to the cannons fired at Fort Sumter.
"In the 1850s, Americans stopped talking to each other and started talking at each other -- and across each other," Pitcaithley says. "They stopped listening, too. And the code words were so powerful -- on both sides -- that if you used one, someone on the other side would just react, 'Oh, I can't listen to that. You are so wrong!' "
"Gee, this sounds familiar," one of Pitcaithley's students said one day.
The experts think so, too. After President Bush won re-election in 2004, Princeton University political scientists Fred I. Greenstein and Larry M. Bartels, along with former Oklahoma congressman-turned-university-lecturer Mickey Edwards, hosted a two-day conference on the state of the nation's political affairs. They called it "The Polarization of American Politics: Myth or Reality?" The diverse group of academics, journalists, and political practitioners reached a consensus that there's nothing mythical about this divide.
The main divergence among those assembled was over the definition of polarization. Experts on the media focused on the nation's rude political discourse. Presidential scholars critiqued the partisanship inside the White House; and political scientists documented the absence of centrist members in Congress, the lost art of the compromise, and the disappearance of civility among the members. This, the political scientists said, was a byproduct of gerrymandered districts and political parties that routinely send to Capitol Hill men and women representing the wings of their parties. Some social scientists cited the American people themselves, theorizing that polarization is the natural result of the great historic sorting of political parties along ideological, rather than geographic, lines.
Hold on there, said the demographers. As we Americans categorize ourselves along ideological lines, we are sorting ourselves geographically -- into blue or red neighborhoods, blue or red television audiences, and blue or red cyber-communities -- and all of that sorting contributes to polarity.
The picture that emerged at Princeton a year ago is that all of these phenomena are occurring and that they are interrelated -- and mutually reinforcing. But the conference, ultimately, failed to agree on a precise description of polarization that takes all of these trends into account.
Here's one working definition that explains how we got here and helps assess whether there is any escape: Polarization is excess partisanship.
Loser Take Nothing
The phrase "lion's share" is commonly used to denote the biggest chunk of the spoils. But in the Aesop fable that created the idiom, the lion's share is actually the whole thing -- or as much as the lion wants. And in Washington today, the Republican Party wants it all.
The Electoral College, with its winner-take-all, state-by-state rules, encourages this impulse. This system meant that George W. Bush, not Al Gore, took the oath of office on January 20, 2001, as the 43rd president. The outcome was enough for some reformers to conclude that it was time for America to move to a true one-person, one-vote system of direct national elections. But that has not happened, nor is it likely to. After all, the Republican takeover of Capitol Hill more than a decade ago underscored that Congress operates on the same principle.
Consider this: With 48 percent of the popular vote in 2000 -- not even a plurality -- Republicans captured the executive branch. Nonetheless, the Bush White House never considered giving Democrats any say in judicial nominations. Republicans thus put their imprint on a second branch of government. What about the third? That same year, Republicans won 222 House seats to the Democrats' 211 (with two independents), and won half the Senate seats, yet they went on to choose every committee chairmanship and to stack every congressional committee with more Republicans than Democrats.
They took the lion's share.
That this is the way it's always been done is not the point. It was done this way in an era of conservative Southern Democrats and liberal Northern Republicans, and at a time when committees dealing with issues such as transportation, infrastructure, and the military were not actually considered partisan.
They are now. Everything is partisan now.
In President Clinton's second term, as the Republican-controlled Congress careened toward impeachment, opinion-makers wondered why the GOP leadership was hell-bent on pursuing a course clearly disfavored by two-thirds of the country. Wall Street Journal reporter Jackie Calmes thought about this dilemma, and wrote an illuminating article about it. The reason was, she said, that although two-thirds of the American people were opposed to removing the president from office, Republican voters were in favor. When those GOP House members went home to their thoroughly gerrymandered districts, they found gung-ho support for impeaching Clinton -- even over lying about sex.
Partly, what's going on now is payback for years of Democratic intransigence.
Republican Mickey Edwards recalled how Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., a liberal Democrat and a friend, voiced a similar complaint. "Mickey, it's different from when you were here," Obey said. "They freeze us out. They don't let us read bills. They don't let us participate."
"Dave, it isn't different," Edwards replied. "You just weren't in the minority then."
Now it's Democrats who chafe, and much of their frustration stems from the Republicans' control of all three branches of government. Unless the partisan sniping hurts you personally, the way it did Samuel Alito's wife at his confirmation hearings, the Democrats' desperation is understandable, and it explains their determination to discredit Republican congressional leaders, win presidential elections, block Supreme Court appointees -- to do something, anything, to slow the GOP juggernaut.
"Unified party government encourages more polarization," says Gary J. Andres, a political scientist who worked in President George H.W. Bush's White House. "It's polarization on steroids."
But Republicans know that their hold on power is tenuous -- and that makes them unwilling to give quarter. Personal relations in Washington reflect that reality. In 1997, a "civility retreat" attracted 200 House members; the biennial event petered out last year for lack of interest.
Former Rep. Vin Weber recalled that when he arrived in the capital in 1980, Bill Frenzel, a fellow Minnesota Republican, advised him to live near D.C. "He told us it was a great experience we'd want to share with our families," Weber said. "And it encouraged friendships with people on the other side of the aisle. You'd see them at church, at a hockey game."
A decade ago, when Republicans took over, GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich advised members not to move to the nation's capital. One ambitious conservative, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, won a House seat with an ad attacking the incumbent Democrat for living in McLean, Va., not Pittsburgh. Sen. Tom Daschle's opponent used a similar tactic in 2004 -- and Santorum's Senate challenger is following suit in 2006.
The reason they stoop to such tactics is that every seat is so crucial in creating a majority. Tom DeLay's legal troubles didn't start with Jack Abramoff. They started with his fundraising for a special-session gerrymander in Texas. In a revealing statement, the former majority leader insisted to CongressDaily that money "is not the root of all evil in politics."
A number of social scientists and political reformers would agree -- but not for the reason DeLay might think. They consider the greatest evil to be gerrymandering.
"The two parties have made a pact with the devil -- i.e., with the other party -- by saying, 'I'll give you all your guys, you give me all mine, and we don't have to sweat general elections,' " former Republican Party chief William Brock says. "What they've done is make the real election the primary. Well, only 15 percent of Americans vote in primaries. Those who do are the hyperactives. And far too often, hyperactives are single-issue people."
This is not a hypothetical concern. In the most recent congressional elections, 95 percent of the House races were decided by margins of 10 percentage points or more -- and 83 percent by 20 percentage points or more.
"What this does is produce members who don't have to worry about the broad base of their own party, it utterly disenfranchises independent voters, and it gives members no compelling reason to reach out to the other party," Brock says. "They know they are judged by hyperactives suspicious of cooperation with the other side, so the irresistible temptation is to use sharp, pointed rhetoric that is not even conducive to conversation."
In 1950, the American Political Science Association urged the parties to sharpen their policies, to give voters clearer choices. This was a good-government impulse, but a naive one. The party bosses who kept the machinery running knew intuitively that in "policy purity" lay the seeds of extremism. The extremists themselves certainly knew it. George Wallace, running for president in 1968 on an appeal less party-based than tribal, put it this way: "There ain't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties."
In some ways, University of Texas government professor Sean Theriault noted dryly in a recent academic paper, this observation reflected "cutting-edge work in political science." The context for Wallace's sneering claim was the contemporary bipartisanship in the Senate over civil rights, legislation that always attracted a working coalition of Northern Republicans, Eastern Democrats, and enough Western and Midwestern senators of both parties to counter Southern intransigence on racial integration.
This is the kind of cross-party compromise that has become a rarity in the 21st century.
During the Reagan administration, Leon Panetta, then a Democratic congressman from California, told a reporter from his home state that he feared the political center had no more than 100 members -- in both parties combined. And it was shrinking fast. Gary Andres, who worked in the White House congressional liaison office under Bush 41, recalls a list of 25 to 40 Democrats who were solicited for their votes. In Bush 43's legislative-affairs shop, that number is even smaller. "We're lucky if we have 10 to 15 Democrats on our list today," a current administration official told Andres. "The numbers just aren't there."
Forty-eight Democrats bucked House Speaker Tip O'Neill to support Reagan's tax cut in 1981. Twelve years later, when President Clinton addressed the federal deficit (caused, in part, by the Reagan cuts) by proposing to raise tax rates for the upper brackets, every Republican in Congress opposed him.
In 1989, 64 House Democrats supported a Republican-backed measure cutting the tax rate on capital gains -- legislation signed by President George H.W. Bush. In 2003, when Bush's son proposed a similar reduction, exactly four Democrats were with him.
"In the '70s, you could have a lot of close votes, with people on opposite sides of the issue being from both parties," notes Princeton political scientist Howard Rosenthal. "By 2000, almost all votes are party-line votes."
Moreover, according to UCLA professor Barbara Sinclair, the very closeness of these votes and their partisan breakdown feed the controversy even after the issue is handled legislatively. "Enactment doesn't signal a consensus," she says. "It doesn't even signal the end of the fight."
In the current climate, if Bush is in favor of something, Democratic leaders are automatically against it -- even if it's one of their pet issues. Medicare is a good example. For years, Democrats floated the idea of a prescription drug benefit. Republicans, when they weren't simply hiding from this issue, characterized it as a budget-buster.
But in 2003, Bush sponsored a Medicare prescription drug plan, and suddenly, Democratic elites couldn't savage it enough. When it passed the Senate on a 54-44 vote, only 11 Democrats supported it, and only nine Republicans opposed it.
"The fight," then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle vowed, "will go on."
Daschle was correct, though perhaps not in the way he meant. Unseated in 2004 by a concerted Republican effort, the South Dakotan became another casualty in what Claremont McKenna College professor John J. Pitney calls the "sack-the-quarterback" approach -- targeting the opponent's leader for defeat or disgrace. Daschle, like former House Speaker Tom Foley before him, was beaten at the ballot box. Fair enough. But Jim Wright, Newt Gingrich, Tony Coelho, Bob Livingston, and Trent Lott were forced to resign their leadership posts over real or imagined lapses trumpeted by the other side.
"This is a new approach," Pitney says. "You make the leader a millstone -- make the leader so radioactive, so unpopular that it does damage to the [other] party."
Understandably, this warfare escalates. The latest casualty is Tom DeLay, although there's no reason to assume that he'll be the last. Some liberal activists are already urging congressional Democrats, if they recapture the House in 2006, to duplicate what House Republicans did to Bill Clinton.
In 1964, Americans elected a Democratic president in a landslide, followed by a close election four years later, then another landslide in 1972 -- this one by a Republican.
"There was a great deal of volatility in presidential voting," says Princeton's Larry Bartels. "Political scientists began to wring their hands about what would happen when there weren't any partisans left in the electorate -- when everyone was a pure independent and woke up on Election Day and thought for the first time about who they were going to vote for."
Fat chance. In the 1980s, Bartels was one of the first to note that presidential politics were reverting to a highly partisan, pre-1950s model.
The reasons are varied and complex. They include the negative television campaigning that became commonplace in presidential politicking after 1964; the close identification of presidents with emotional issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam War; the personal involvement of presidents in scandals large and small; the overexposure of modern presidents as they tout their themes-of-the-day; the unrestrained willingness of the mass media to disparage the president's policies, and also to ridicule him, his family, and his aides in personal ways. Add to that mix the polarized attitudes already existing in Washington, and the strong personalities of the last two presidents, and you end up with polarization that overwhelms even an event as profound as 9/11.
"The data shows that President Bush is the most polarizing president in [recent] history, going all the way back to Truman," Republican pollster Neil Newhouse says. "Republicans love him and Democrats don't."
The evidence is unmistakable: Exit polls showed Bush getting 93 percent of self-described Republicans in 2004, but only 11 percent of Democrats. Bush's percentage among those who identified themselves as "liberal" wasn't much higher -- 13 percent. This was only half the liberal votes that Ronald Reagan garnered when he won re-election in 1984.
Twenty years later, Newhouse tried to help Republican activists understand what they were facing. "Remember how you felt about Bill Clinton during impeachment?" And their heads would all nod. "That's how Democrats feel about George W. Bush."
There's no doubt that Bush -- with his Texas swagger, cocksure-speaking style, ideological outlook, and consequential policies -- rubs many people the wrong way. Bush's strong religious views and ever stronger conservatism reinforce his image. Never mind that he started a war, a contentious course in the best of times.
"He's the most polarizing president we've had in the 50-odd years we've been polling the question," says Gary C. Jacobson, a University of California (San Diego) professor, who is finishing up a book documenting how and why Bush has this effect. Jacobson says that the factors include the Clinton impeachment's polarizing effects on elites; the highly divisive Florida vote recount of 2000; Bush's record of governing from the right; and, most of all, the war in Iraq, "which has generated by far the widest partisan differences of any conflict from Korea onward."
All of that is hard to dispute, but there is one more factor to take into consideration: Americans themselves. Clearly, Bush came to power in a political environment in which we were already predisposed to separate into hostile camps. What if Bush is not polarizing, as much as polarized? "Am I the only person in America who likes both George Bush and John Kerry?" former President Clinton asked at his library dedication. Pretty close to it, Bill.
To Hillary Rodham Clinton, dismissed recently by no less a liberal than actor George Clooney as "the most polarizing figure in American politics," this is not an academic question. The point, as Sen. Clinton considers her own White House run, is this: What if it's not Bill or Hillary Clinton -- or Dubya -- but us?
Several prominent social scientists have concluded that the much-talked-about "culture wars" are overblown and that Americans remain for the most part a tolerant and moderate-minded people more capable of holding sensible, centrist views than the media or the shrieking one-issue activists would have us believe.
John Evans of the University of California (San Diego) examined 17 issues and concluded that on all of them except one -- abortion -- the great mass of Americans have had a convergence of opinion in recent years. Paul DiMaggio, research director for Princeton's sociology department, says his surveys show that "the public actually has become more unified in attitudes toward race, gender, and crime since the 1970s."
The person best known for challenging the notion of a society split into great armed cultural camps is Stanford University political scientist Morris P. Fiorina, a Hoover Institution fellow and the author of Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America. "There is a serious disconnect between the views of typical Americans and the people who purport to represent them," says Fiorina, who gives lectures with such titles as "The People Versus the Political Class" and "How Bad Is the Disconnect?"
When it comes to political polarization, however, this optimistic analysis has a couple of problems. First, as Fiorina himself freely admits, political polarization is worsening. Second, it appears to be spilling over into other aspects of American life.
The mechanisms for that phenomenon are many and varied. The discussion starts with the two political parties' changing identities, particularly in the South, and ends up with the media and human nature itself.
The first trend is the gradual separation of politically active people into philosophically coherent parties. Mass communication played a role in this "great sorting out" as Democrats William Galston and Elaine Kamarck call it. Political realignment in the South has also been a big factor. Southern Democrats, in essence, constituted a third party in American politics for most of the 20th century. Liberals believe that Republicans and Democrats basically switched positions on race beginning in the 1960s. In a soon-to-be-released book, The End of Southern Exceptionalism, political scientists Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston maintain that although race and other cultural touchstones such as faith, law and order, and patriotism, were factors, the main root of Southern realignment was economic.
"A region that was still the 'Third World' of American life at the end of World War II underwent a gigantic economic boom in the postwar years," Shafer says. "What this did was bring the Northern party system to the South at last, and with it a national -- and no longer regional -- party system. This had no room for a Southern Democrat faction, and inevitably, it disappeared."
And in the South, as everywhere else, members of increasingly partisan parties began to look askance at spending time with people of the opposite persuasion. This disconnect took the "big sort" to a new dimension.
"People are moving to places where they feel comfortable," says Bill Bishop, a Texas journalist and demographer who turned his findings into an award-winning newspaper series called "The Great Divide." "If you are gay and into tech, you move to San Francisco or Austin. But if you are a Christian and into tech, you move to Dallas."
This kind of self-segregation doesn't do much for civil society. Bishop found an Austin conservative whose car was repeatedly vandalized because he had an anti-light-rail bumper sticker. That man -- and his Mercedes -- now reside behind a gated community in a pro-Bush enclave of Travis County, Texas. Likewise, Bishop documented the fate of Gillespie County Democrats, who made a float for a Fourth of July parade, but then couldn't find anyone willing to ride on it -- because then their neighbors would learn their secret. This in the county that sent Lyndon Johnson to Washington.
Nor is the separation purely physical. The rise of cable television and the Internet, coupled with debased standards for objectivity in the mass media, has left Americans with the freedom to choose where they get their news. And they are increasingly getting it from outlets that share their bias. This fracturing of the audience comes in a time of cultural coarsening. While the establishment likes to turn up its nose at The Jerry Springer Show, is it qualitatively different to watch adulterous drunks in wedding dresses duke it out on camera than to see James Carville and Robert Novak go at each other on Crossfire?
Why does CNN offer this kind of fare? For the same reason that Fox News promotes Bill O'Reilly and that political consultants offer negative ads every election cycle: Americans can't get enough of it. This is not a cliche. It is a sociological fact, demonstrated by researchers Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania and Byron Reeves of Stanford, who filmed two sets of mock political debates, one of them of the C-SPAN variety, the other in the style epitomized by shows such as Hardball. The results: Americans watched the in-your-face exchanges much more avidly. Mutz used the analogy of motorists slowing on the highway to peer at a gory accident.
"On the one hand, people hate it -- the conflict makes their skin crawl," she told Bishop. "But at the same time, they are drawn to it. They can't take their eyes off it."
But what makes "good" television doesn't make good democracy.
"Somewhere along the line, you began to get the ascription of motives," says David Brady, deputy director of the Hoover Institution. "With motives, the claim is no longer that you are right or wrong. It's that you're good or bad."
As the quality of discourse erodes, so does our ability to discuss issues rationally. No one is immune. Not war heroes, nor wartime presidents: Bill Clinton is twisted. John McCain is unbalanced. John Kerry is a coward. Bush lied about Iraq. Partisans and the press say in their defense that experience has taught them to be skeptical of the powerful, but what's really happening is that emotions are given as much currency as facts.
A National Election Study conducted by University of Michigan researchers queried voters about how the country had fared under eight years of Reagan. The answers were startling. Asked, for example, if inflation had increased or decreased during Reagan's tenure only 10 percent of "strong Democrats" acknowledged any decline. Half said that inflation had gotten worse. The facts are that inflation was running almost 14 percent when Reagan took office, and was below 4 percent when he left.
"So," says Bartels, "that's the way partisanship operates both to maintain and to exacerbate differences in people's political views, by presenting a kind of partisan filter on all sorts of events."
That's one way of putting it. Another is that partisanship literally inhibits Americans from processing information that challenges their political views. This processing is calling thinking, really. It is a prerequisite for effectual self-government, and for negotiating our way through a complicated, pluralistic society. One of the hottest fields in corporate communications is teaching people who don't agree to talk civilly to each other. Meanwhile, witness the proliferation of nonprofit groups with names such as the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, and Let's Talk America.
"Communication is what keeps the darn thing going," says Laura Chasin, founder of the Public Conversations Project -- the darn thing being representative democracy. "Start noticing how you talk," she advises. "Make a determination to avoid slogans, stereotypes, demonizing sound bites. These things don't contribute to conversation. They shut it down."
Regardless of who is to blame for the polarization in politics, experts say that getting us out of the morass will take a push. Some centrists fantasize about an independent run for the presidency by McCain.
At the Princeton conference, Greenstein suggested that leadership on de-polarizing the nation has to come from the Oval Office. That's easier to say than do, however. In the late 1980s, George H.W. Bush tried to build a governing coalition from the center, only to find himself ambushed, first by Senate Democrats and then by conservatives in his own party.
Bush's successor and Bush's son both promised to address this problem, but Bill Clinton decried the politics of personal destruction while his aides practiced it, and George W. Bush speaks like a uniter while governing like a divider. It's tempting to invoke Ben Franklin's quip about all hanging together lest we "all hang separately." But with all due deference to Sen. Clinton, the real moral of this story might be that if it takes a village to polarize a nation, it may take a president to heal it.
A Polarized Congress
Duke political scientists David Rohde and John Aldrich depict the increasing split in Congress by dividing the House into equal-sized voting blocs, each composed of 10 percent of members. A generation ago, the more liberal half of the House had 29 Republicans and the more conservative half had 56 Democrats. By the 105th Congress, there were only 10 Republicans in the more liberal half and no Democrats in the more conservative half. This pattern continues today.
Distribution of House members in terms of their "liberal" or
"conservative characteristics, by party
91st Congress (ended in 1970)
Makeup of the liberal bloc of Congress:
44 D-0 R
43 D-1 R
41 D-3 R
38 D-6 R
26 D-19 R
Makeup of conservative bloc:
16 D-28 R
14 D-30 R
7 D-37 R
12 D-32 R
7 D-38 Rs
105th Congress (ended in 1998)
Makeup of the liberal bloc of Congress: 44 D-0 R
44 D-0 R
44 D-0 R
44 D-0 R
35 D-10 R
Makeup of conservative bloc:
0 D-44 R
0 D-44 R
0 D-44 R
0 D-44 R
0 D-45 R
A Steady Public
As political leaders have become more polarized over the years, the public has remained fairly steady in its self-identified political ideology.
Percentage of public, by political philosophy
Year Conservative Moderate Liberal
2005 34% 42% 20%
1998 37 40 19
1988 38 39 18
1978 34 39 17
1968 37 31 17
"Other" and "Not sure" responses excluded
Source: Harris Interactive