America really is two different political countries these days

July 28, 2014

I wrote my newspaper column today on a theme I started exploring in the Fix last week: The idea that America -- and American politics -- are fundamentally adrift, caught between an old way of doing things that they know is broken and an uncertain future that feels too far away to grasp right now.

My argument in the piece was that our politics have reflected this broader anxiety and tension, flip-flopping from predictions of a permanent Republican majority in the early part of the 2000s to back-to-back Democratic White House victories in 2008 and 2012 and now an electoral environment that looks like it will deliver gains to Republicans this fall.

Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University, in Georgia sent me an email Sunday night offering an alternate theory: It's not growing uncertainty that is afflicting the country but rather growing partisan divisions.  "Democrats and Republicans disagree much more than in the past about what they want government to do,  and right now neither party’s supporters are getting what they want," Abramowitz wrote.  "But the data show very clearly that voters like their own party and its leaders as much as ever.  They just dislike the other party and its leaders much more than ever. "

He provided this chart -- taken from a piece he wrote earlier this month for UVA's Center for Politics -- that makes that point strikingly. This chart, using data from the American National Election Studies (ANES), shows how partisans view their own party and the other party using a 0 (very cold/negatively) to 100 (very hot/positive) rating.


Image courtesy of Alan Abramowitz

As you can see, sentiment toward one's own party has been both positive and steady for the last three decades, generally at or above 70 on the temperature scale.  Since the 1980s, however, feelings about the opposition party have absolutely cratered -- from the mid 40s in 1982 all the way down to the mid 20s by the 2012 presidential election.

Here's another way to look at how far the two parties have pulled away from each other.  The table below shows how people feel about the two parties over the last three decades. Pay particular attention to the far right column, which documents the number of people who feel positively about one party and negatively toward the other.


Image courtesy of Alan Abramowitz

In the space of three decades, that number has DOUBLED.  People seeing both parties in a positive light has dropped five-fold in that time.

The conclusion I draw from the numbers above -- and I believe Abramson shares -- is that we are increasingly moving toward two entirely separate Americas, a liberal one and a conservative one.  Residents in each of those countries have responded in drastically different ways to the consequential events -- the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the NSA spying scandal, the economic downturn -- of the last decade.  Each country is certain that their policy prescriptions are the right reaction to the societal and cultural upheaval facing the U.S. and the world. And, they are even more convinced that the other country's solutions are totally and completely wrong. And not just wrong but potentially very, very dangerous.

There seem to be only two outcomes to these tensions: 1) One country wins out or 2) The two countries split in some irreversible way. It's hard to imagine either scenario coming to pass right now. But, something has to give.

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