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Polarization and the Independents

An ever smaller number of swing voters will decide the presidential election.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By JAY COST
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Late last month, Gallup published a summary of President Obama’s job approval ratings for 2011. The pollster’s findings were stunning: Eighty percent of Democrats approved of the president’s performance through 2011, as did just 12 percent of Repub-licans. The difference between these two numbers—Gallup calls it the “party gap”—was a whopping 68 points. 

Photo of independents squeezed between Democrats and Republicans

This is not a novel development. Of the 10 largest party gaps in the poll’s storied history, 8 have occurred during the Obama and George W. Bush presidencies. Indeed, we have seen a very strong party gap in recent presidential elections as well. Obama won 89 percent of Democrats and 9 percent of Republicans in 2008, for a party gap of 80 points; the party gap for Bush in 2004 was 82 points. This is a stark shift from relatively recent political history. Richard Nixon’s party gap in 1972 was 54 points; Jimmy Carter’s
in 1976 was 69 points; Ronald Reagan’s in 1984 was 67 points; and even Bill Clinton’s in 1996 was 71 points.

How do we account for this increasing polarization? Much of it has deep roots. From roughly the time of the Civil War to the Great Depression, the two parties were strictly regional coalitions built not on grand ideological divisions but on old antipathies from the battlefield. The Democrats usually won the South and the big Northern cities, while the Republicans typically won most everything else. This meant that both parties had liberals and conservatives in their ranks. Consider, for instance, the tumultuous decade of the 1910s. The Democrats had in their coalition conservative Tammany Hall and the borderline radical William Jennings Bryan; the Republicans had Nelson Aldrich, the machine boss of Rhode Island, and Robert La Follette, the premier progressive of Wisconsin.

This all began to change in the 1930s, when FDR worked to rebuild the Democratic party as a progressive coalition. Roosevelt destroyed Tammany Hall in favor of Fiorello LaGuardia, a nominal Republican and strong progressive. However, FDR could not complete the ideological realignment he began, failing to curb the power of the Southern conservatives within his own party. Liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller and conservative Democrats like Richard Russell would prove to be surprisingly durable over the next half-century, yet their numbers would dwindle as party conflict became less a battle between North and South and more a battle between liberals and conservatives. 

The Reagan presidency sped this process. By the time Reagan took office, the two party coalitions were in shambles. The GOP was badly damaged after the Watergate scandal, while Jimmy Carter’s failures had splintered the Democrats. Reagan’s presidency helped reenergize Republicans under a distinctly conservative banner, and it also helped heal the wounds on the Democratic side, as most could agree that, whatever their disagreements during the 1970s, they disliked Reagan. 

Yet slow-moving trends don’t account for the dramatic spike in political polarization over the last decade, with Bush and Obama. What else is happening?

A lot. Since 2000, we have seen the relatively stable foreign and domestic policy equilibriums of the postwar era collapse, forcing presidents—and the public—to pick one side or the other.

On the foreign policy side, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower deserve credit for establishing the postwar settlement. Both parties adopted anti-Communist and internationalist postures. As the New Politics of the 1960s emerged, however, this consensus started to break down. The Vietnam-era antiwar left would come to power in the Democratic party, and the end of the Cold War would only enhance its position. While George H.W. Bush was able to build a bipartisan coalition to execute the relatively quick first Gulf war, his son struggled to do the same with the prolonged global war on terror. Indeed, Republicans (heirs of the anti-Communist internationalist con-sensus) were strongly supportive of his efforts, while Democrats (the descendants of the New Politics left) were strongly opposed.

As for domestic policy, the shift in the economic context is crucial. Between the end of World War II and the turn of the century, the American economy averaged 3.5 percent real growth per year. This extraordinary performance enabled both sides to have their cake and eat it, too: Democrats could expand the social welfare state, Republicans could keep taxes low, military spending could grow, and all the while the federal budget deficit stayed within reasonable bounds. Indeed, both sides could dabble in policy realms usually considered the domain of the opposition: JFK proposed across-the-board tax cuts in 1963, while Richard Nixon adopted a sweeping expansion of Social Security in 1972.

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