Obama and the ‘Polarization’ Canard

It's perfectly understandable why Barack Obama's conservative critics would latch on to this week's Pew Research Center report that stated that the president "has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades."

It sounds damning and it offers the right a chance to claim the high ground by lamenting the president's supposed failure to deliver on his promise of reaching across old division to unite the country.

And so we've had Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's old speechwriter, writing glumly in a Washington Post op-ed  that "it is a sad, unnecessary shame that Barack Obama, the candidate of unity, has so quickly become another source of division," while Karl Rove used his >em>Wall Street Journal column to report that "it took (Obama) less than 11 weeks to achieve the very opposite of what he promised. That, in its own regrettable way, is quite an achievement." Similar observations have been made on cable news channels by countless conservative talking heads this week.

This is about what you'd expect from the right. And if the shoe was on the other foot, it's safe to say that the left would be doing exactly the same.

But there is a completely rational and logical explanation for the seeming "polarization" of the electorate. (The electorate actually isn't that polarized right now – we'll get to that in a bit.) It has to do with long-term trends that have been developing for decades and that really have nothing to do with any particular action Obama has taken as president.

First, let's understand exactly what Pew means when it uses the term "polarized." In a poll conducted last month, Pew measured Obama's approval rating at 59 percent among all voters. But that 59 percent comes much more heavily from Democrats than Republicans. Among self-identified Democrats, the president's approval rating was 88 percent; among Republicans, it stood at just 27 percent—a difference of 61 points. This is where the "most polarizing" label comes from: this 61-point gap is larger than the margin racked up by any president at this point in his administration since modern polling began.

But look closer at the numbers—and the history. Since Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, every first-year president has been similarly polarizing. Obama's Democratic/Republican gap is the biggest, but George W. Bush's was 51 points, Bill Clinton's was 45, George H. W. Bush's was 38, and Ronald Reagan's was 46.

Prior to Reagan, though, the gaps weren't very significant. At this point in his presidency, Jimmy Carter actually enjoyed a 56 percent approval rating among Republicans. And in early 1969, Richard Nixon's approval among Democrats stood at 55 percent.

This suggests, obviously, that something profound happened in or around 1981—and it did. Ronald Reagan's earth-shattering landslide in 1980 signaled a fundamental realignment, a marked shift in the way Americans viewed and identified with both political parties.

For decades before 1980, the terms "Democrat" and "Republican" were, from an ideological standpoint, nebulous. Each party represented a broad coalition of clashing ideologies, united mainly by pragmatism. Many liberals identified considered themselves Republicans, and just as many conservatives called themselves Democrats.

What changed everything was the civil rights movement. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Democratic Party was home both to liberal northerners like Hubert Humphrey and Herbert Lehman and to reactionary southerners like Richard Russell and Herman Talmadge. As a whole the South was just as conservative then as it is now, but its voters cherished their inherited identity as Democrats. Even as he was barely cracking 40 percent nationally, Illinois liberal Adlai Stevenson won Mississippi with 58 percent of the vote in 1952.

Meanwhile, the north was split between the parties. Big-city machines could churn out victories for liberal Democrats in many states and Congressional districts, but small towns and the burgeoning suburbs were overwhelmingly comprised of Republicans. Particularly in the Northeast, these Republicans were culturally liberal—believers in integration and racial equality. Their Republicanism stemmed from their revulsion at the wasteful public spending of urban Democratic machines. As E. J. Dionne noted this week, 35 Republican House members in 1960 came from New England or New York; today, that number is three.

The ideological schizophrenia of both parties made today's "polarization" impossible. Conservative, Democratic-identifying Southerners were, on the whole, quite fond of Republican Dwight Eisenhower (at least until he sent the National Guard to Little Rock in 1957), just as liberal Northern Republicans weren't particularly offended by John F. Kennedy.

Then came the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Lyndon Johnson's supposed declaration as he was signing the bill that "there goes the South for a generation." He was right, and then some. Suddenly, party labels began to take on meaning. Since 1880, not a single Deep South state had voted Republican in a presidential election. In 1964, though, Republican Barry Goldwater proclaimed his opposition to civil rights—and carried five Southern states, his only victories outside of his native Arizona. (In Mississippi, Goldwater's share of the vote was an astonishing 87 percent.)

Still, the South didn't become Republican turf overnight. Many of its voters at first held on to their Democratic registration, believing (or at least hoping) that their party would get over its infatuation with Northern liberalism. Thus, Georgia's Jimmy Carter swept the region (minus Virginia) in his 1976 presidential campaign (against Gerald Ford, who represented the old moderate-to-liberal wing of the G.O.P. and who had defeated conservative Ronald Reagan in the G.O.P. primaries).

But in 1980, the lines of distinction between the parties became even clearer to Southerners when the G.O.P. turned to a Goldwater disciple, Reagan, as its nominee. Since the South had always been conservative, Reagan's platform had considerable appeal in the region; and he dropped all sorts of hints to white Southerners that, in his heart, he viewed racial issues just as they did.

When Reagan won his 44-state landslide over Carter in ’80, it cemented the G.O.P. as an ideologically conservative party, just as conservative on cultural issues as it was on economic ones. Conservative Southerners began to give up the Democratic ruse, and started callings themselves Republicans.

Just a year before the '80 election, national polls found that Democrats enjoyed a "party ID" advantage of more than 20 points over Republicans. This had been the case for decades. But Reagan's election gave definition to both parties. The G.O.P. was now the conservative party, and the Democrats were now the liberal party. In the spring of '81, for the first time ever, Republicans closed the party ID gap to around 10 points. Not at all coincidentally, this was exactly when Reagan notched his "polarizing" 46 percent partisan approval gap.

In the three decades since 1980, the party ID evolution has persisted in self-reinforcing fashion. One by one, old-school conservative Southern Democrats retired, switched parties or were voted out of office, routinely replaced by conservative Republicans—who, in turn, helped more clearly define their national party as conservative. And one by one, old-school liberal Republicans from the North retired, switched parties or were voted from office, routinely replaced by liberal Democrats—who, in turn, helped more clearly define their national party as liberal. 

At the end of 2008, after eight years of George W. Bush destroyed what remained of the G.O.P.'s presence in the Northeast, Gallup found that Democrats enjoyed an 8 percent party ID edge—their largest in 25 years. This perfectly illustrated how sharp and clear partisan lines have become. In the old days, when conservative Southerners casually called themselves Democrats, an eight-point advantage would have been catastrophic for the party. Today, it is cause for celebration.

Taken in this context, it really isn't significant at all that public opinion would diverge so sharply along partisan lines. It is true that Obama's partisan approval gap is the largest ever; but it's also true that never before in history have the basic ideological differences between the two parties been so clear to voters. That is the perfect recipe for "polarization," no matter who the president is.

Maybe, then, it's time for a new definition of polarization. Since partisan voters are always going to dig their heels in, the truly relevant measure of whether a leader is polarizing should be his or her standing among independents—the voters who choose not to wed themselves to the rigid ideology of either party.

Among these voters, Obama's approval rating was 57 percent in the Pew poll—the best for any president at this point in his term since Reagan. That's probably a more accurate and meaningful way to frame Obama's public standing right now—not that Michael Gerson or Karl Rove will be admitting that anytime soon.

Obama and the ‘Polarization’ Canard