Many Republicans outside the House, and some inside, are uneasy about the shutdown and fear it could badly damage the party. Still, most of them share with the hard-liners the same hostility to the president, his health-care law and the bulk of his agenda. Their disagreements are more over tactics of shutting down the government to stop the new health-care law, not ones of philosophy or ideology. Democrats, for their part, are determined to hold the line in this and future battles.
That is why a solution to the shutdown and the debt ceiling does not lead to a resolution of the issues that separate the parties. “I don’t really see a way out of it in the very short term,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who has written extensively on polarization. “We’re stuck in it. There was a time when it was possible for the parties to work together, because the divide between them was much smaller. Now we’ve gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible.”
Emergence of a trend
The 2012 election between Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney was billed as a great debate between competing views of government and a moment when voters could signal a clear direction for the country.
Instead, the election continued the status quo in Washington, with neither a slackening in partisanship nor a narrowing in the philosophical gap between the parties. If anything, it reinforced rather than eased the divisions that existed. Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, described 2012 as “the most partisan, nationalized . . . election in at least six decades.”
Over the past two decades, the percentage of self-identified Republicans and Democrats who support their party’s presidential nominee has ticked higher and higher. In the past three elections, according to American National Election Studies data cited by Jacobson, 89 or 90 percent of Republicans and Democrats backed their party’s nominees. Three decades ago, those percentages were considerably lower.
What made 2012 more significant was the degree to which voting in House and Senate elections followed a similar pattern. In each case, nine in 10 partisans backed their party’s candidates for either House or Senate races.
The 2012 election represented a high point for trends that have increased polarization. In the 1980s, another period of divided government, a quarter of the electorate voted for president one way and the House or Senate another way. In 2012, only about 11 percent of voters in the ANES studies cited by Jacobson said they split their tickets.