In Wednesday's Washington Post, conservative columnist Michael Gerson, citing a recent Pew Research Center poll, says that the "polarization" between Democrats and Republicans in their approval of President Barack Obama's performance is greater than for any other president in surveys stretching back to the early days of the Nixon administration. In the Pew survey, a nearly unanimous 88 percent of Democratic identifiers, as opposed to a scant 27 percent of Republicans, approved of the president's performance, a gap of 61 percentage points. Independents (57% approve) fall precisely between the Democrats and Republicans. Overall, in that survey, 59 percent of all Americans approved of the job the president was doing, a number that rose slightly (to 61%) in the most recent Pew survey, conducted in the wake of Obama's European trip.
While Gerson's statement of the facts may be correct, his interpretation is dead wrong. The election of President Obama last year brought America into a new civic era, a turning point that has occurred roughly every eighty years throughout American history. Each time the country enters a civic era there is a rise in partisan identifications, a more coherent ideological divide between the two parties, and an increase in straight ticket voting. Even Gerson noted that polarization might be a good thing when it is a "decisive" and "ambitious" president like Franklin D. Roosevelt who is doing the polarizing to achieve overriding national goals. Despite Gerson's attempts to blame Obama for our current level of partisan divide, the truth is that such a division is inevitable in a civic era.
The polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the Pew and every other survey has much less to do with President Obama's personal and political style, as Gerson suggested, than it does with the inability of his own Republican Party to adapt to this new era. From the earliest Pew survey conducted in 1989, the first year of George H.W. Bush's administration, through 2005, there was near parity in the distribution of party identifiers within the electorate; no more than three or four percentage points ever separated the Democrats from the Republicans. By contrast, since 2006 the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats has risen significantly, while the number saying they are Republican has fallen. In the most recent Pew study, conducted early this month, the Democrats held a clear 52% to 35% lead over the Republicans in party ID, a 13 percentage point shift toward the Democratic Party since 2004. And, only 21 percent of American voters are "pure" Republicans, a group that consists only of those willing to call themselves Republicans and does not include independents that say they lean toward the GOP. This is the smallest number of "pure" partisans for either party in any survey ever conducted by Pew.
Quite simply, the GOP has become an ever-declining corps of conservative true believers. A recent Frank N. Magid Associates survey indicates that while Democratic identifiers are almost evenly divided between liberals or progressives (45%) and moderates (42%), among Republicans, conservatives outnumber moderates by more than 2:1 (61% vs. 26%).
As a result, Republicans see things very differently than almost everyone else. The latest Daily Kos weekly tracking poll, for example, indicates that more than two-thirds of Americans (67%) have a favorable opinion of President Obama. In that poll at least sixty percent of both women and men and all age and ethnic groups have a positive impression of the president. Only among Republicans (23%) and in the geographic center of the GOP, the South, (41%), is only a minority favorable toward Obama.
Given the distance of the Republican Party from the current American political mainstream, and the increased sense of party loyalty felt by many Americans, it shouldn't be surprising that most of the public is reticent to see President Obama compromise with Republicans on important public policy questions as Gerson suggests. In a March CBS/New York Times poll, a clear majority (56%) wanted President Obama to pursue the policies he promised in the campaign rather than working in a bipartisan way with Republicans (39%). An even larger majority (79%) wanted Congressional Republicans to work in a bipartisan way with the President rather than sticking to Republican policies.
By refusing to do so, it is the Republicans and not Barack Obama who are now polarizing American politics and, as a result, it is they who are polarized from most of their fellow citizens as well.
If Republicans like Michael Gerson truly want to see bipartisan policymaking, they will have to retreat from their position as a corporal's guard on the right wing of American politics and join the rest of the country in seeking real solutions to the major issues facing the United States at the dawn of the 21st Century.
Cross-posted at the NDN Blog.