Max Steinbaum: Grand Old Polarization

Monday, September 30, 2019 - 2:46pm

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The Michigan Daily

By mid-April 2016, the U.S. presidential election was starting to take shape. Candidate Donald Trump, having won the Republican primary race, held a commanding lead over a field that had been whittled down to himself, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was cruising to her expected coronation as the Democratic nominee. As the primary races solidified and public attention turned to November, America became gripped by a campaign season that bitterly divided the nation and gave way to the most hostile presidential election in recent memory.

Americans were at each other’s throats. A mid-April Pew poll found that 45 percent of Republicans considered the Democratic Party a threat to America’s well-being; 41 percent of Democrats felt the same about Republicans.

The findings were telling of a deepening fault line between the two parties. Washington Post writer Aaron Blake said of the poll: “Believing it is a threat to your country...probably connotes something approaching an active hatred.” 

But that poll was taken prior to the explosion of Nov. 8, 2016, without knowledge of the impact Trump’s election and presidency would have on political polarization. A Pew poll from July 2019 found that 85 percent of Americans feel the political debate in the country has become more negative and less respectful, and over half of Americans point their fingers at the president for this. These findings are also revealing: If things were bad in 2016, America’s profound divisions are not healing.

Americans’ perception of increasing political polarization is not imagined — it’s also rooted in a congressional reality. While America has experienced a steadily widening partisan gap since World War II, congressional polarization has seen a marked increase in the past decade. As a 2016 Washington Post article conveys, Congress is ideologically partisan to a degree not witnessed since Reconstruction.

Take it straight from the elephant’s mouth. Then Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. — who retired from politics last year as something of a Republican renegade — spoke to how partisanship overrides better judgement in an Oct. 2018 interview with 60 Minutes. In the interviewFlake said that there was “not a chance” he would have supported an FBI investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh “if he had planned to run for re-election.” 

Calls to investigate Kavanaugh, which reached a fever pitch last September, came almost exclusively from Democratic House members. When pressed as to why he wouldn’t have supported an investigation, Flake lamented that rampant partisanship has prevented cross-party cooperation, lassoing would-be-free-thinkers back to the party line. “There’s no value in reaching across the aisle,” Flake said. “There’s no currency for that anymore. There’s no incentive.”

Flake’s commentary reflects an upsetting congressional rule: When your moral convictions would guide you otherwise, ignore them and act in the interest of your party. Going against your party is a sin in the relentlessly zero-sum game of congressional hardball.

While partisanship isn’t a new actor on the American political stage, today’s seemingly hopeless polarization of Congress and the American public is also unique. If partisan divisions haven’t always been so fanatical, what is responsible for the feverish polarization we’re experiencing today?

The best explanation is found in the rightward and leftward drifts of the two parties, which have left much more ideological real estate between them. While the leftward drift of the Democratic Party is evident in the rhetoric of its presidential hopefuls, the Republican Party has, in my view, become decidedly more conservative than the Democrats have liberal in the past decade. 

The GOP’s bolt to the right can be seen in the ideological makeup of the party’s supporters. Per The New York Times, while nearly a quarter of Republican voters were self-described “moderates” in 2018, that contingent has shrunk to 16 percent within the past year. Additionally, the Evangelical base — an especially conservative demographic — grew from 26 percent to 32 percent in that time frame. 

The Republican Party has also continued to promote increasingly unpopular policy positions on increasingly important issues. According to a 2019 U.S. News & World Report article, 89 percent of Americans support expanded background checks for gun purchases, and 62 percent favor a wholesale ban on the sale of semi-automatic weapons. The majority of the GOP hasn’t budged in its opposition to gun control. Pew found in Oct. 2018 that 60 percent of Americans believe ensuring health care coverage is a government responsibility. The GOP hasn’t budged in its opposition to health care reform. The same can be said for issues like abortion. While it seems as though Americans’ priorities and opinions are shifting, the Republican Party is stagnant. 

It is not the responsibility of the Republican Party, of course, to change its platform in response to changes in public opinion. If a Republican feels that their party no longer advocates for their interests, they don’t have to vote Republican; the same is true for a moderate Democrat who may not favor their party’s leftward drift. But, in addition to being poor electoral strategy, the GOP’s reluctance to entertain policy evolution as national opinion changes only entrenches outdated and unwanted positions in our country’s political discourse.

The Republican Party defines itself as conservative, but conservatism isn’t defined by aversion to change. Conservatism in the theoretical sense — a sense once employed by the Republican Party — champions prudent, measured progress. Until the Republican Party returns to the conservative principles it ostensibly cherishes, Americans will have to indefinitely tolerate our sorry state of politics: grand old polarization, courtesy of the Grand Old Party.

Max Steinbaum can be reached at maxst@umich.edu.