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Partisanship is good. Partisanship works.

It's become accepted fact these days in that partisanship is ruining everything. But what if that's not true?

A new poll conducted by USA Today and the Bipartisan Policy Center largely affirms the conventional wisdom that people strongly disapprove of how Congress is handling its business (48 percent) and want their members of Congress to "work across party lines" (67 percent agree with that idea). But, there's one question contained within the poll that suggests a growing number of people don't think partisan polarization is that bad a thing.


Image courtesy of USA Today/BPC

In 2013, just one in five people said that the divisions between the parties are "a good thing because it gives voters a real choice." One year later, that number had doubled. Why? Concludes Susan Page in the USA Today piece on the poll:

The shift in public opinion....may reflect broadening acceptance of Washington's polarization as an inevitable fact of life. Skepticism about the government's ability to solve big problems, fueled by concerns about the Affordable Care Act, could play a part as well. It sets a landscape that could boost Republicans in the November elections, minimizing the impact of Democratic charges that GOP forces have been obstructionist.

Whatever the reason, the shift in public opinion is a telling indicator of how the idea of "partisanship = bad" is both a) overly-simplistic and b) changing.

As we have written many times before, we are living in a time of unprecedented partisanship. Of the 12 most partisan years in history -- measured as the differential between how partisans view the president -- 10 have come in the last 10 years.

Image courtesy of Gallup
Image courtesy of Gallup

That doesn't mean, however, that people are deeply unhappy about that fact. We live in a political world that has been deeply affected by several decades worth of partisan-led redistricting and the process of self-sorting; we live among people who agree with our views, we listen to radio and TV that affirms our beliefs, we read blogs that convince us we are, in fact, right. Given all of that, there appears to be an increasing desire among voters to -- you guessed it! -- have members of Congress who reflect their point of view.

Check out this chart, which again comes from the USA Today/BPC poll.

Image courtesy of USA Today/BPC
Image courtesy of USA Today/BPC

Not surprisingly then, members of Congress tend to vote in line with what they believe the views of their district are. And, in a country in which less than ten percent of all congressional districts are at all competitive between the parties, it's not surprising that Congress doesn't agree on all that much.  The people they represent don't either.

All of which brings us to a larger point about partisanship. The two parties view the world -- and how to solve the problems facing it -- in radically different ways. That gap has never been wider. Acknowledging that reality is not a bad thing. It simply says that the two parties put value on different priorities; elections allow the electorate to decide which approach they prefer.  (Sidebar: The truly corrosive thing about partisanship is the way in which people on opposite sides of the aisle treat one another; the death of the phrase "people can disagree without being disagreeable" is evidence of that problem.)

Partisanship seems likely to get deeper rather than less deep -- both in the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential election -- particularly if voters keep going back and forth on which party's approach they prefer (as they have done over the past decade-plus). In the aftermath of each of the last three elections -- 2008, 2010 and 2012 -- the winning side has insisted that voters have clearly chosen their view of governance, only to have the pendulum swing back in the opposite direction two years later. (The 2014 midterms seem likely to repeat that dynamic.) Unless and until voters show in a series of elections that they want a certain type of government, the partisan battles will rage on. And that may not be such a bad thing for the country.

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

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