According to a recent Pew poll, Barack Obama is the most divisive president in a half century. The partisan gap in approval rating between Republicans and Democrats is the largest it has been in decades. The gap is 61% now; just forty years ago, in 1969, the partisan gap regarding Richard Nixon’s performance at the same time in his presidency was a mere 29%. The gap has increased for every president since, with only two exceptions (Carter and George H.W. Bush).
The trend towards divisiveness seems to have started with Reagan. The gap with Nixon was 29%; the gap with Carter was 25%. When Reagan was elected, the partisan approval gap shot up to 46%. Reagan inspired many people, and established the foundation for modern conservatism (small government, less regulation, strong military). He was also the antithesis of modern liberalism. This meant that nearly all liberals disapproved of him, while virtually the entire conservative movement gave him their support.
Reagan forced the Republican party to the right, which widened the ideological gap between the two parties. (Today, a moderate like Nelson Rockefeller would have no shot at all at the Republican nomination). Politics became more polarized, and political strategists used that to their candidate’s advantage.
Political attacks became more personal—Republicans loathed the very idea of Bill Clinton, seeing him as a sort of Machiavellian genius for his talent in dodging the Monica Lewinsky scandal, while liberals considered Bush a mad dictator who had stolen the election.
During the most recent election, many Democrats considered John McCain a warmongering, far right extremist (and if there is anything John McCain is not, it is an extremist), while many conservatives still consider Barack Obama a Muslim, terrorist supporting snake in the grass.
(True story: I was talking to a conservative friend recently, and he claimed that he would root for UNC to win the NCAA tournament, except that Obama picked them. A perfect example of polarization).
This polarization is ubiquitous—and unhealthy. Just prior to the election, Peggy Noonan wrote an overlooked little book called Patriotic Grace. In this book, she argued that no matter which presidential candidate won, Americans, for the good of the country, must rally around him.
Noonan fears that America will soon some difficult challenges. Her fear is of a terrorist attack, but her book was written before the full scope of the financial collapse was known, and the financial crisis, if it continues as it is, could be an equally traumatic disaster.
If the country is not united, then Noonan fears that it will collapse under the strain. She is right. If the president cannot implement his agenda without the absolute, uncompromising disapproval of half the country, then it will be almost impossible to solve any of the country’ problems. This could be seen in Bush’s handling of Iraq—while he made more than his share of unforced errors, Democratic opposition definitely made his job harder. And I believe that Obama will experience much the
same thing, as congressional Republicans oppose his economic plans.
As Abraham Lincoln said, a house divided cannot long stand. America, of course, is nowhere near as divided as it was in Lincoln’s time, and secession is not something that America needs to worry about. But it is divided enough to make any attempts by the government to do anything productive enormously difficult, and to ensure that there is a great deal of waste and gridlock in Washington.
As we grow farther apart, I think that both parties will become more and more desperate in their attempts to woo voters, and grow farther and farther apart. The Republicans will attempt to energize their base by pushing tax cuts and war when in power, while the Democrats will fight for increased welfare programs. Neither side will care much for pragmatism and compromise. Since the liberal and conservative goals are mutually exclusive (you can’t have both low taxes and a large welfare state), this will have a horrible effect on the health of our country.