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The Perils of Polarization

The daily commentary about the Obama era has largely overlooked a trend that is now unmistakable—namely, the growing conservative sentiment in this country that goes well beyond the tea-party rallies and Glenn Beck’s rants.

Gallup offered the first piece of compelling evidence. On January 7, 2010, it reported that self-identified conservatives had increased from an average of 37 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 40 percent in 2009. (By contrast, moderates and liberals each decreased by one percentage point during that period.) Gallup based its conclusion on a synthesis of surveys taken throughout 2009, with a total sample of nearly 22 thousand and a margin of error of less than +/- one percentage point. It found, moreover, that ideological shifts among independents—a three-point drop in moderate identifiers, coupled with a five point-gain in conservative identifiers—accounted for most of the overall change.

The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll underscores Gallup’s conclusion. The week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, 24 percent of respondents identified themselves as liberal, 42 percent as moderate, and 32 percent as conservative. In the latest survey period (March 23-26, 2010), by contrast, only 32 percent called themselves moderate, while 42 percent now regarded themselves as conservative—a remarkable 10 percentage-point shift. (Liberals remained unchanged at 24 percent.) I have not been able to find another survey in recent decades that gave conservatives that large a share, or moderates that small a share. While it’s easy to question the significance of a single poll, the liberal/moderate/conservative breakdown as measured by the Washington Post and ABC has averaged 22/38/37 during the Obama administration, versus 22/43/34 during George W. Bush’s second term—clear evidence of a shift toward conservatism among moderates.

These results are part of a polarization of the electorate that has been underway for a generation. While comparisons among polls using differing methodologies is dicey, trends within polls are revealing. In 1992, Gallup found that moderates averaged 43 percent, versus 36 percent for conservatives and only 17 points for liberals. By 2009, both conservatives and liberals had picked up 4 percentage points, while moderates had decreased by 7 points. To be sure, there have been twists and turns along the way. But the overall direction of the tectonic shift is clear.

Let’s take an even longer view. In a study published in the first volume of Brookings’ Red and Blue Nation?, the political scientist Alan Abramowitz examined two decades of evidence from the authoritative National Election Studies. In 1984, he found, 41 percent of voters were at or near the ideological midpoint, versus only 10 percent at or near the left and right endpoints of the scale. By 2004, only 28 percent were at or near the midpoint (a decline of 13 percentage points), while respondents at or near the endpoints had risen by 13 points, to 23 percent.

It remains the case that Washington is more polarized than the nation as a whole. The most recent analysis using the standard political science scoring system  found zero ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans in either chamber of Congress. Which means that in both the House and the Senate, the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than is the most liberal Republican. In the electorate, Democrats who consider themselves moderate or conservative still overlap with similar Republican identifiers. But as Republicans have shed liberals and moderates over the past generation, the overlap has diminished.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama was obviously aware of these trends, and he understood that Americans were tired of the kind of politics they had engendered. He took office pledging to reverse them. Quite obviously, this has not happened. Historians and political scientists will long debate whether it could have turned out differently, whether a different White House strategy might have weakened the Republicans’ early decision to present a united front in opposition. A plausible case can be made that an achievable bipartisan stimulus bill would have been less effective than the one adopted nearly along party lines—and that there was not enough common ground between Democrats and Republicans to produce significant health insurance reform. Still, it is hard to believe that any political party enjoys a monopoly on wisdom, so a situation in which the minority party gives the majority no incentive to accept the minority’s good ideas is bound to produce sub-optimal results.

Whatever the substantive merits of single-party legislation, there are other reasons to keep working toward more agreement across party lines. Political science research finds a strong inverse relation between the level of combat between the parties and citizens’ trust in their governing institution. While a measure of mistrust is functional in a democracy, excessive mistrust hampers democratic self-government. With trust at historic lows, we have reached that point. And progressives should remember that mistrust hampers those who wish to use government affirmatively more than it does those who seek to limit it.

Regardless, American politics now seems condemned to an extended period of intense polarization, with an expanding army of aroused conservatives fighting to halt and reverse what it sees as the deplorable Europeanization of our economy and society. I doubt that a politics so configured will be able to address our long-term economic problems—until a crisis forces us to. I hope I’m wrong.