Polarization We Can Believe In
The notion that Barack Obama is polarizing is ridiculous.
The country is actually way less divided than it has been in a long time. And what looks like polarization is actually a growing consensus, that one side is right and the other is not.
Even in politics, things are often exactly what they seem. So it should have been reasonable to dismiss as fiction recent reports that Barack Obama is the most polarizing president in recent history. There is nothing in our experience to support that; based on the president's personal favorability rating and his high job approval numbers, if this is polarization, it is the kind of polarization we want.
Still, it was big news when the very reputable Pew Research Center for the People & the Press concluded, based on the reported results of a recent survey, that: “For all of his hopes about bipartisanship, Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades.”
The Pew results predictably fired up the conservative/Republican ideological message machine, especially Bush White House alumni, unrepentant about the eight years of divisiveness over which they presided. Michael Gerson, Bush's chief speech writer, lamented in his Washington Post column: “... Obama's polarizing approach challenges and changes the core of his political identity. His moderate manner and message appealed to a country weary of division and ambition—a nation now asked to endure another round of both.”
Karl Rove, the former president's senior political adviser, recently noted that while the country has been getting progressively more polarized over the years, Obama has only made a bad thing worse: “Rather than end or ameliorate that trend, Mr. Obama's actions and rhetoric have accelerated it,” Rove wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, “His campaign promised post-partisanship, but since taking office Mr. Obama has frozen Republicans out of the deliberative process, and his response to their suggestions has been a brusque dismissal that ‘I won."'
Forget the name-calling between the pot and the kettle tangled up in these reprisals. What Rove and his ilk are missing completely is that the “polarization” the Pew study reveals is markedly different from the kind we saw under Bush or Clinton, in fact stretching all the way back to Reagan. Today’s polarization is a result of drastic changes in the political marketplace, the same political marketplace in which Republicans have been getting killed since at least 2006.
Polarization, in the way the Pew survey lays it out, is actually a sign of political stabilization and consensus. And in this case, it's very bad news for the GOP.
According to Pew, “The 61-point partisan gap in opinions about Obama's job performance is the result of a combination of high Democratic ratings for the president—88 percent job approval among Democrats—and relatively low approval ratings among Republicans (27 percent).”
The explanation for the growing split in opinion seems pretty simple when you consider what happened in the country over the last two years: The Democratic Party grew; the Republican Party shrunk; a lot of people who were independents and some who used to be Republicans became Democrats. That reduced the Republican Party to a core of only the most ideologically committed and fanatical.
It’s only natural that the increased ideological purity of the GOP would severely reduce the chance that a Democratic president would attract GOP support. The other side of that equation is that in 2006 and 2008, Democrats so successfully marketed themselves as an attractive alternative to the Bush-era GOP that a lot of people not only decided to vote Democratic, they decided to become Democrats. And there was an intensity to those decisions to switch that continues to show up in Obama's approval ratings.
The 73.5 percent of eligible voters—153.1 million—who registered for the 2008 general election represented the highest registration level since women's suffrage in 1920. Much of that was driven by a desire to rebuke Bush, but also by a desire to be part of the historic campaigns waged on the Democratic side by Obama and Hillary Clinton.
A lot of independents and moderate Republicans who would have helped Obama's numbers among Republicans are simply not in the party anymore and are, in fact, pushing up his Democratic numbers.
So call it what you want, but what “polarization” represents today is actually “consensus,” a growing consensus that Democrats and Barack Obama represent the party of the future and that Republicans have failed.
The New York Times in January noted that the Republicans may be on the verge of losing a whole generation of new voters: “Americans identifying themselves as Democrats outnumber those who say they are Republicans by 10 percentage points, the largest gap in party identification in 24 years.”
Polarization suggests forces that are equal as much as they are opposite. But the shrinking Republican Party exerts much less influence on our politics as it once did, and that spells long-range trouble for them. They are almost entirely dependent on white voters and cannot win without the support of moderate white, swing voters. That pool is shrinking and with it goes GOP opportunities.
When Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, white voters who described themselves as moderates made up 45 percent of the electorate; the next time a Democrat won, Bill Clinton in 1992, that number was down to 41 percent. After eight years of George W. Bush, the exit polls from the 2008 election put the percentage of moderate white voters at 32 percent. Meanwhile, the overall number of voters who identified as Democrats was at 41 percent in 2008, up from 30 percent in 1992 and 25 percent in 1976.
Obama is not polarizing. He just won really, really big and, so far, people are happy with their choice, even some who didn't vote for him.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.