Why we live in such polarized times, explained in 1 poll question

June 5, 2013

Want to understand why we live in such politically polarized times?


U.S. Capitol building. Bloomberg photo.

In the new NBC-Wall Street Journal national poll is a question that explains the partisan rift as simply and as well as we have seen.  Respondents were asked to decide which of two statements better represented their own views. The first statement was that "government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people." The second was "government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals."

Forty-eight percent of people agreed with the first statement. Forty-eight percent of people agreed with the second one.  Seventy-seven percent of Democrats wanted government to do more. Eighty percent of Republicans said government is already doing too much. And, there we are.

Americans' relationship with their government -- how much, how little, when, where -- has been at the forefront of political debate since, well, we had a government, but the conversation has restarted (and morphed, then morphed again) in a major way over the past 15 years or so.

It was a Democratic president in Bill Clinton who, in his 1996 State of the Union speech, famously declared that the "era of big government is over" -- a declaration that was seen as the closing scene of the growth of government that had led to decades of Democratic control of Congress. (That dominance, of course, had ended in 1994, and Clinton was positioning himself at or near the ideological center in hopes of securing a second term.)

Clinton was, not surprisingly, reflecting public sentiment at the time. An NBC-WSJ poll conducted in December 1995 showed that just 32 percent of people said that government should do more, while a whopping 62 percent said it was already doing too many things.

That desire for a smaller, less intrusive government held sway for much of the next decade -- and helped elect small-government conservative George W. Bush. But, the combination of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and, more impactfully, the administration's botched handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, began to transform how people thought about their government. By September 2007, 55 percent of Americans wanted government to do more, while just 37 percent thought it already did too much.

Over the past five years, however, the pendulum has begun to swing back to the side of less government -- with large numbers of Republicans and even a majority of independents (53 percent in the latest NBC-WSJ poll) expressing that view.

The simple fact made clear by the numbers is that we are a country that is deeply divided -- almost directly along party lines -- when it comes to the role of government. Republicans want less, Democrats want more, and independents aren't entirely sure although they tilt toward less government.

The problem for politicians faced with that reality is that there is little incentive to break with the clear opinions of their own partisans. It's why Democrats are loath to touch entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare and why Republicans continue to vote, without any demonstrable purpose, to repeal President Obama's health-care law. It's also why Obama's task -- particularly as it relates to solving the long-term budgetary problems facing the country -- is so difficult.

The questions about where government fits in our lives -- and if it does -- are the rocks on which the ship of state is currently foundering. Getting through immigration reform and the debt-ceiling fight -- without failing and/or bringing the government to its knees -- will require politicians on one side (and maybe both sides) to give when it comes to how much government is the right amount of government. The NBC-WSJ poll casts doubt on their willingness to do just that.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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