Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
In October of last year, Pew Research released a study revealing what many of us already know: the partisan divide has grown dramatically. Even more disconcerting is that even though people have been leaving the Democratic and Republican parties in droves, “fewer Americans hold a mix of views. Instead, “the shares of Americans holding liberal or conservative views across a wider range of issues – is increasingly associated with partisanship.”
Nowhere is this more evident than the divisive views of Donald Trump, where Pew also revealed last week that his approval ratings have remained remarkably stable,” but there is a “wider gap between Republicans’ and Democrats’ views of Trump than for any other U.S. president in the modern era of polling.”
While the gap is unprecedented for Trump, it is also reflective of a growing trend of dissatisfaction in the party that’s out of the White House. Democratic approval of Ronald Reagan was 31%, while George W. Bush dropped to 23% and Republican approval of Barack Obama was 14%. Trump’s approval among Democrats stands at 7% compared to a whopping 84% of Republicans.
And the views of Trump supporters vs. his critics have been contentious since the 2106 campaign, but are worse than ever. The consequences are becoming more dire, as IVN contributor Chris Malone pointed out earlier this year:
“...it’s human nature to assume that people outside our own social group have ill intentions toward us, especially if they are viewed to be members of a rival...group. …[I]t’s relatively easy for manipulative forces to fuel our negative perceptions of outsiders with rhetoric and accusations. …[F]acts and reason are readily dismissed as lies or half-truths created by the enemy.“
The media has discovered this is a boon to ratings, particularly valuable for once-dying newspapers. Former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel lamented in a WaPo editorial back in 2010:
“We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of ….individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.”
Things are worse now than they were then, yet the Trump era has provided a lifeline to a number of suffering publications. After he entered the race and won the election, newspapers experienced growth not seen in decades.
Many Americans get their version of the news from unapologetically partisan sources. While Fox and MSNBC take a stab at hard news during the day with mixed results, assignment editors can pick and choose what stories to cover and how.
The commentary is decidedly conservative on Fox and they have been #1 in cable news for years. Talk radio is also dominated by the right. The left has its own share of outlets including the complete takeover of late-night talk shows and so, those who wish to indulge in viewpoints that coincide with their own needn’t look very hard.
The effect is also nationalizing local politics and distracting from real issues we face in our own neighborhoods. While the Founders’ view of “limited government” would most certainly have changed dramatically with modern communications and travel, the direct influence of a 24/7 microscope on Washington D.C. has done more than the actual governance ever could.
Matt Welch lamented in Reason last October: “[T]he more we fetishize politics and power at the presidential level, the more our local communities become not refuges away from the Beltway din, but comfort zones of voter blocs aligned either for or against the faraway emperor. It's not a healthy trend.”
The real danger is growing. As Alan Dershowitz argues in his new book, we have entered an era of hyper-partisan politics where nearly everyone takes sides, and it has become nearly impossible to have a reasonable discussion about this controversial president or many other issues.
“For Trump zealots, their president has not only committed no crimes, he has done nothing wrong. For anti-Trump zealots, nothing Trump has done—even in foreign policy—is good. Everything he has done is wrong, and since it is wrong, it must necessarily be criminal. This deeply undemocratic fallacy—that political sins must be investigated and prosecuted as criminal—is an exceedingly dangerous trend.”
Attitudes toward Barack Obama and Clinton were not altogether different but the intensity has increased dramatically and the sentiment is much more widespread. The commitment to prioritize civil liberties and due process has now been largely abandoned.
Neither Democrats or Republicans were particularly united during the election yet the teams have congealed enough to reach new levels of division. Considering most in the GOP knew Trump was no conservative and the party had a large swath of reluctant supporters and never-Trumpers, they certainly seem to have fallen in line.
For the GOP, that seems to be primarily about thwarting and enraging the Democrats and the left, the “fake news media” and the Deep State while the Democrats appear to be out of ideas beyond bashing Trump and opposing anything he says or does. Compromise has become a dirty word and worse, the language of criticism often obfuscates real problems that could be highlighted much better with less incendiary rhetoric that polarizes the debate.
The media focuses on extremists so they become symbolic of the mainstream, while centrists and independents are largely ignored. Winning the ideological war and elections has become a zero-sum game. As IndependentVoting.org’s Jacqueline Salit and Kathy Harris pointed out in an open letter to the presidential candidates following the Orlando shooting in 2016, “communicating across the ideological and partisan divide serves the American people best. The problem is that the culture of our partisan election system makes it difficult, if not impossible, to respond as a unified nation.”
Essentially, the two parties have become something reminiscent of a WWE match where common ground is the undiscovered country and each side engages in rhetoric that represents more of a perception of what the other side wants than reality and in many cases, a deliberate distortion.
There seems to be plenty of things reasonable people can mostly agree on: access to affordable health care for all, a strong economy with good jobs for anyone willing to work, less violent crime, fewer unwanted pregnancies and many other things. We can disagree on how to get there later, but at the moment we are stuck at square one.
And independent thinkers free of party loyalty are more likely to praise those they normally disagree with or point out when both sides are contributing to a problem. As Judith Miller observed in regard to CNN's Jim Acosta and his ongoing feud with the White House, he is responsible for abandoning journalistic ethics in pursuit of grandstanding, but President Trump is the one who set the tone that makes some people believe that type of behavior is acceptable.
Groups perceived as conservative rather than populist have been active for some time but Democrats moving even further left has become the new norm and moderates are not ignored; they are demonized.
The Washington Post reported on last week's Netroots Nation, the largest annual gathering of liberal activists, and how the party’s “leading left-wing voices lashed out at the political centrists.” Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the primary, said “We tried it their way and we lost to a racist extremist. Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what we do, so we might as well give them the real thing.”
Yet officials with the donor group associated with the Koch Brothers, who are libertarians yet are usually portrayed by the left as shills for corporations and the GOP, have publicly condemned the divisiveness and lack of leadership in Washington along with specific policy criticisms:
“Network officials said their work on veterans’ and criminal justice issues served as a model for future policy wins, citing their willingness to work with Democrats and new allies on their priorities.”
Unless we as a nation begin to focus again on what unites us rather than what divides us, America might not remain the strong nation we have always been. Perhaps making America great again involves more politicians who are independent thinkers not beholden to a respective team.