Poles Apart

As election approaches partisan America aligns

Election 2004

October 03, 2004|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - One thing seems certain about the outcome of the presidential race: On Nov. 3, the day after Election Day, close to half of the voting public will wake up angry.

An electorate that was as bitterly divided as it was evenly divided in 2000 will go to the polls again in one month, even more polarized than it was four years ago. Like denizens of parallel universes, voters are split over hotly emotional issues like the war in Iraq and gay rights, and clinging to increasingly ideological parties that are moving further and further apart.

"This is the most polarized election we've seen since we've starting polling," says Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

There have always been divides in American politics - over prohibition, civil rights, going to war. But today, a variety of forces - cultural, technological, geographic and political - have converged to push the voting public into two increasingly intransigent camps that neatly align with the two major political parties.

"The polarization is best understood as an ideological sorting by party," says Thomas E. Mann, a governmental scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Many political scientists believe that the polarization of the parties, and the electorate, had its roots in the culture wars of the 1960s. The debates over the Vietnam War, women's rights and most of all civil rights, knocked apart Franklin D. Roosevelt's already fracturing New Deal coalition, a diverse amalgam of Southern whites, urban voters, minorities and Catholics that had made up a majority Democratic Party for many years.

Over the next several decades - with highly polarizing presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton underscoring the cultural clashes - Southern Democrats headed to the Republican party, drawn to its social conservatism, while Northern liberal Republicans, fiscally conservative but socially progressive, found a more comfortable home among Democrats.

"We don't have the partisan overlap we used to have," Mann says.

John Kenneth White, a professor of politics at Catholic University and author of The Values Divide, sees an electorate split primarily between "those who believe in absolute truths," generally conservatives who attend church frequently, and "those who like their morality writ small," more secular Americans who may not attend religious services at all.

Spurring along, in fact aggravating, the ideological cleavage has been a radical change in the news media in the past several years. The explosion of political Internet sites and cable TV shows - many if not most of them highly partisan - now gives voters an endless array of options as well as the ability to create their own echo chambers, selectively taking in only information that comports with their point of view and keeping out all else.

A survey this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that, since 2000, the number of Americans who get their election news from network television or newspapers has dropped by nearly a quarter, while the number of those seeking political news from specialized Internet sites, highly partisan talk radio, cable TV and even comedy shows has grown.

This year, even movies have become part of the highly fragmented media. "If you're Republican and conservative, you like watching Fox News and you've seen The Passion of The Christ," White says. "If you are on the liberal or Democratic side, you watch CNN and you're much more likely to see Fahrenheit 9/11."

Some analysts believe the desire to entertain only similar viewpoints even carries over to geography, as Americans increasingly live in communities heavily segregated, not by race, but by party. The famed map of the 2000 presidential election, showing the "red" states of the South and Midwest won by Bush and the "blue" states of the coasts that went to Al Gore, only hints at the trend.

A study commissioned this year by the Austin American-Statesman shows that voters are less likely to live in a community with an even mix of Republicans and Democrats, and more likely to live in a neighborhood that is lopsidedly partisan, than at any other time since World War II.

James G. Gimpel, a University of Maryland political scientist, says the trend toward ideologically homogeneous communities has led to a "patchwork nation," in which voters become more strident in their views in the absence of ideological diversity, and the parties move further apart.

Voters feel that the stakes are enormously high this year, with the war in Iraq more polarized around party lines than any previous war, including Vietnam, says Jacobson, pointing out that Republican support for the war is about 60 percent higher than support among Democrats.

Similarly, Jacobson says Bush himself is more polarizing than any other president in modern American history. Republicans and Democrats have been more than 80 percentage points apart in their approval of the president, with Republicans saying they approve of the job he's doing by about 90 percent or more, and Democrats approving by as little as 12 percent.

Why the stunning disparity?

Iraq, of course, cultural matters like gay marriage and stem cell research, judicial nominees, environmental policy, tax policy, even Bush's persona are all areas in which Democrats and Republicans seem to gaze through different lenses. "There's a long laundry list," Jacobson says. "It goes back to how Bush got elected."

Today: Same-sex marriage, the latest front in the culture war Tomorrow: Guns - for sport and protection or a menace? Tuesday: Changing jobs in a changing economy Wednesday: The pain - and the pride - of the war in Iraq Online: baltimoresun.com/election2004

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