The November elections brought significant changes to Washington and to many states. What they did not produce was any greater sense of optimism on the part of the public about the state of American politics. If anything, they produced the opposite.
A new report from the Pew Research Center lays out the evidence in clear and unrelenting detail. The survey of attitudes at the close of the year offers a reminder to political leaders, and especially prospective presidential candidates, that among their biggest challenges ahead will be finding ways to begin to restore faith and confidence in the political system.
Four in 5 Americans say the country is more politically divided than in the past. Although that is no worse than it was two years ago, it is far gloomier than it used to be. Scroll back to the early days of President Obama’s tenure in the White House, and the differences between then and now are particularly stark.
During George W. Bush’s second term as president, a period of rancor and division because of the Iraq war, almost 7 in 10 Americans said the country was more divided than it had been.
After Obama’s election in 2008, there was a brief thaw in attitudes. At that moment, as many people said the country was not more divided than in the past as said it was, hardly a consensus that the country was heading toward a period of greater unity, but at least a sign of optimism.
That disappeared quickly. Today, perceptions of political division are even more negative than during the worst days under Bush, and there is minimal confidence that things will change for the better anytime soon.
Just 1 in 5 surveyed by Pew say they think the country will be less divided in five years than it is today. More than a third say the country will be even more divided, and the rest say it will be no different.
Seven in 10 say the failure of Republicans and Democrats to work together over the next two years will hurt the country a lot; another 16 percent say it will hurt some. And more than 4 in 5 say it will hurt them personally.
Expectations are low. Regardless of party identification, Americans overwhelmingly doubt that Obama and congressional Republicans will make progress on the country’s most important problems.
Given the sharp political divisions people have seen this past week over the Senate Intelligence Committee report on enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA, as well as the struggle of Congress to agree on a measure to fund the government, it’s no wonder expectations are where they are.
Hopes for the year ahead reflect the overall mood. Just 49 percent say they think 2015 will be better than the current year, compared with 42 percent who say it will be worse. Those lines between hope and despair have steadily moved toward one another over the past four years, and the seven-point gap between positive vs. negative is the smallest in Pew surveys dating back to 1994.
One reason for the shift toward greater pessimism about the year ahead is deterioration among Democrats in the wake of the Republican victories in the midterm elections. This is now a staple of politics. Negative attitudes toward the other party have increased over time, and each change in power in some part of government risks intensifying those feelings on the part of the losing party.
Overall, Democrats have been more optimistic than Republicans about the future during Obama’s presidency. But Democrats have dropped 21 points since last year on this question, going from 81 percent saying that the year ahead will be better to just 60 percent.
Meanwhile, Republicans, who have been deeply pessimistic about the future during Obama’s presidency, have not turned rosy now that the GOP won control of both houses of Congress. Only 34 percent of Republicans say they expect the year ahead to be better than this year, just one point higher than a year ago.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats think the leaders of the other party will do much to cooperate. About 1 in 5 Republicans say they expect the president to cooperate a fair amount with GOP leaders; about the same percentage of Democrats say they expect that GOP leaders in Congress will cooperate with the president.
There is, however, a partisan gap on what expectations Democrats have for Obama’s posture toward the GOP vs. what Republicans expect of their congressional leaders.
Two in 3 Democrats say they think Obama will cooperate a fair amount with Republicans. But fewer than 4 in 10 Republicans say they expect that their leaders will cooperate with Obama. In fact, a big majority of Republicans don’t want their leaders to do so. They want them to fight with Obama, even at a cost of getting less done.
Notably, the findings about expectations for cooperation are worse than they were just eight years ago when the positions of the parties were the opposite — after Democrats took full control of Congress while Bush was still in the White House. That deterioration is one more indicator of how much more embedded partisan divisions have become in the political system.
Four years ago, after Republicans trounced Democrats in the midterm elections, lawmakers and the president were able to have a highly productive lame-duck session of Congress. It was a rare moment, replaced in 2011 by intense conflict between the White House and congressional Republicans.
This year’s post-election period has highlighted the depths of the problems ahead. The president has marched ahead on immigration reform in the face of warnings from Republicans that it could poison future relations (which could hardly be more poisonous, to start). Republicans are determined to find ways to retaliate on that and other agenda issues.
Meanwhile, the efforts to pass a spending bill have highlighted divisions in both parties’ coalitions, as Republican congressional leaders and the president grapple with defections and disagreement on their right and left flanks.
That foreshadows more chaos and less productivity ahead, leaving Americans to draw the conclusions that the Pew survey highlights, which is that dysfunction (and with it deepening pessimism about the system) is the new normal in American politics.
A personal note: The Washington Post lost a revered colleague this week. Michel du Cille was a photojournalist of unsurpassed talent, as well as an extraordinary person, whose passion for his craft was surpassed only by the humanity he showed in his work and in the quiet confidence with which he pursued it. He was a storyteller without peer, and our loss is widely and deeply felt.