Against the Grain

Mindless Tribalism Infecting American Politics

New polling shows voters in both parties hate the other side more than they support their own party’s policies.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
June 10, 2018, 6 a.m.

This week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll contained news of a disheartening but unsurprising development: Voters in both parties hate the opposition more than they support their own side’s policies. This dynamic, known as negative polarization, is poisoning our politics and contributing to a mindless tribalism.

The survey found that just 41 percent of Democratic voters are voting for Democratic candidates because of their stand on issues, while 54 percent are doing so because they hate President Trump more. Among Republicans, the breakdown is similar: 44 percent of Republicans back their party because of the issues, while 52 percent oppose Democrats more.

For Democrats, it’s a continuation of an unhealthy trend. In September 2010, when President Obama was in office, nearly half of Democratic voters (48 percent) said they were backing the party for positive reasons. With Republicans in control of the House four years later, that number dropped to 40 percent—about where it stands today.

Republicans have largely been in opposition mode since Obama’s presidency. But it wasn’t always that way: In 1994, when Bill Clinton was president, only 34 percent of Republicans said they voted for their party because of a hatred of the president’s policies—18 points fewer than today, with their party holding a governing majority.

The days of a policy-oriented Contract with America are long gone. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, reflecting the partisan evolution, can now be relied on to rally support for Trump by going on television and convincing partisans the other side is filled with secular heathens trying to destroy America.

Pew Research Center’s recent polling finds even more signs that the two parties are feeding off of negativity to advance their political arguments. A 53 percent majority of Republicans believe they’re losing more than winning, even though they control the presidency, the Senate, and the House, and hold a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Democrats, who slammed Republicans for supporting confrontation over compromise during the Obama years, are now watching their own party adopt the same tactics. As recently as last year, 69 percent of Democrats preferred elected officials who work with people they disagree with; that number has plummeted to 46 percent in Pew’s March survey.

Other signs abound of our deepening polarization. Republican lobbyist Bruce Mehlman, one of the sharpest political trend-watchers in town, wrote in his latest quarterly memo: “While polls have consistently shown more Americans disapprove of Trump’s job performance than approve, those numbers reflect historic disapproval among the opposing party as much as anything else.” Mehlman notes that Trump’s 87 percent job approval with his own party, at this point in his presidency, is the second-highest in political history since World War II. Meanwhile, Trump’s 10 percent approval is the worst from the other side in recorded history.

It doesn’t take a political savant to appreciate that these trends will give Trump a fighting chance to win a second term, even if he’s still loathed by much of the country. It’s easy to overlook that 61 percent of Americans viewed Trump as unqualified for the presidency on the day that 46 percent of voters cast ballots for him as president.

Despite the tumult surrounding his administration, Trump’s job-approval rating has inched up to 44 percent in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, and 45 percent in the new Fox national survey. Those are just below the level necessary for Trump to win a second term, but if Democrats let their own empowered base to choose their 2020 nominee, they may be close enough for comfort.

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