Politics these days is mostly a case of united be damned, divided we’ll brawl. Citizens of the Republic, pollsters and pundits reliably inform us, are in a partisan blood feud of Hatfield and McCoy proportions. The shamans of my own tribe—academics poring over the data-equivalent of chicken guts—say the portents of this growing polarization are not good. Red states and blue states are having a punch up, it’s beating the nation black and blue, and all those who care deeply about the preservation of liberal democracy either seeing red or feeling blue. Apparently, we’re having a bit of a blue period.
And, let’s face it, there’s more than a smidgen of truth to this. The left-right divide has gotten so bad that politics is giving race a run as the great social divider. These days, people are more opposed to an ideological interloper marrying into the family than someone with a skin tone containing an unacceptable dose of melatonin. And forget any hopeful half-glass message there. It’s not like we finally achieved post-racial myopia and got a prescription giving us 20-20 clarity on our political differences. To shift the metaphor from the visual to the aural, all that dog whistling to white anxiety coming from high government places can be heard loud and clear by everyone.
While the reality of political polarization is pretty depressing in its insistence on the anti-Rodney King no-we-can’t-all-get-along message, if you look at numbers long enough you start to realize there is an imbalance to this division. The popular image is of a roughly fifty-fifty split between liberals/Democrats and conservative/Republicans. And that is just not true. The reality of political polarization in the United States is that on one side is a rump of the GOP-affiliated tribe. And on the other is pretty much everyone else.
That everyone else is not just liberals and Democrats. Our picture of the self-assortment of the populace into different political tribes is a bit fuzzy, with the numbers shifting a bit depending on polling source and whether the question is asking about party identification or ideological leaning. And while civilians – and increasingly, people who should know better — often use ideology and partisanship synonymously, in reality they are not the same thing. Roughly speaking, about a third of American citizens view themselves as conservative, about a quarter as liberals, meaning the plurality—better than 40 percent—view themselves as in-the-middle moderates. The partisan differences inexactly parallel those numbers, with more of an even split between Dems, Republicans and independents. Still, if you think of the country as roughly a third Republican/conservative, a third liberal/Democrat, and a third whose political philosophy is basically a-pox-on-all-you-jagoffs, you wouldn’t exactly be right, but you wouldn’t be too wrong either.
If we take that as a rough and ready way to apportion the political perspectives of the population, there is indeed deepening chasm between them, but not really into the camps the press portrays. It’s not the right against the left with miffed moderates in the middle holding their noses, leaning one way or the other and splitting the difference. In reality, political polarization on many of the questions that divide is made up of two lopsided groups. One is a mashup of diehard Trump fanboys, anti-intellectual conservatives and a large pinch of increasingly queasy GOP party loyalists. And on the other side, there’s everyone else.
This split is most obvious in the approval numbers for President Trump. According to poll aggregation sites like fivethirtyeight.com and pollingreport.com, roughly 80 percent of Republicans give him a thumbs up. The real story, though, is in the disapproval numbers. Democrats disapprove of Trump in eye wateringly high numbers—around 90 percent in some polls—and independents are not far behind at around 70 percent disapproval. That’s why Trump is the most unpopular president since the advent of modern public polling. His party’s base supports him. Nobody else does.
This helps explain why the GOP is having such a rough time getting anything done even though they have unified control of government. What was supposed to be the GOP’s signature legislative accomplishment—repealing and replacing Obamacare—has been harder than advertised at least in part because there’s no public support for it outside of Republican echo chambers. The numbers on this policy basically reflect the president’s standing with the American public: Democrats oppose the GOP’s healthcare plan by 90 percent and Independents by 70 percent. So on healthcare, Republicans (just) want the GOP to repeal Obamacare. Everyone else does not.
The bottom line is that public support for the policy agenda being pursued by the governing party consists of, give or take, 30 to 40 percent of voters. Sixty to 70 percent oppose it—there’s just not that many left in the undecided middle anymore. So we have this weird situation where the government just elected to run a liberal democracy is actively ignoring the wishes of the commonweal. Rather than government by the people and for the people, its government telling the people to go suck eggs unless they vote in Republican primaries. From a democratic-politics-as-usual perspective, the politically astute play for the GOP—shoot, the only reasonably smart political play—would be to adjust the policy to get more public support. The federal government’s leaders either flat out refuse to do that (Trump) or for a host of reasons can’t do that (Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell).
That’s not a prescription for a healthy or stable liberal democracy. Which is why government nerds of all political leanings are getting the fantods. A democratic government can get by without majority support if a reasonable chunk of the populace basically couldn’t care less. If a minority fervently wants government to do something and the majority response consists of “meh” and a bit of shoulder shrugging, that minority might get what it wants without risking a political bloodbath. On the other hand, a democratic government vigorously pursuing an agenda that is actively opposed by a majority of the people it purportedly represents is, by definition, in trouble. And that’s the state the Republican’s find themselves in right now: they are trying to wield their government majority on behalf of a popular minority against the wishes of the popular majority.
So, the situation is not that our divided house cannot stand. It’s that a majority increasingly can’t stand the people dividing the house. That is certainly a recipe for divisive and polarized politics and the nastiness is likely to be alleviated by one of two things. Either the Republican leadership reaches for the center, or it the center crushes the GOP in future elections. Given the Trump administration’s track record during its first six months, I’d rate the latter more likely than the former. Until then, though, the fight goes on.