Americans who blame Washington politicians for the polarization and gridlock of the nation's politics might want to look in the mirror: Like the elected officials they decry, voters tend to automatically retreat into partisan camps even when they disagree with the party line on policy.
A USA TODAY/Bipartisan Policy Center Poll shows that the officials who have been unable to avert the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration – the current debate centers more on who's to blame for them – in some ways reflect constituents who view the opposition party as deeply untrustworthy and its positions extreme. Though most Republican and Democratic voters say American politics are more polarized than the American people are, the findings indicate that on that they're wrong.
"There's no question the American public sees the country as divided and as increasingly divided, and as usual, they don't think it's their fault," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who conducted the survey in conjunction with Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "The public blames the polarization and the partisanship on the politicians, but in all honesty, it's their fault, too."
Consider this test: The survey asked 1,000 Americans to assess two education policies. The first plan was to reduce class sizes and make sure schools teach the basics. The second was to increase teacher pay while making it easier to fire bad teachers.
For half the sample, the first plan was labeled a Democratic plan and the second a Republican plan. Then the labels were switched for the other half. The "Democratic" plan became the "Republican" plan, and vice versa.
In both cases, about three-fourths of Democrats and Republicans lined up behind the plan they had been told belonged to their party. In fact, both sides were inclined to describe their support as intense, to say they "strongly" favored it — regardless of which policy it happened to be. That predisposition to automatically retreat to separate camps is "one of the primary reasons why our political climate is so partisan and polarized," Mellman and Ayres write.
The poll was taken to help launch a year-long project by the Commission on Political Reform, part of the Bipartisan Policy Center, on the causes and repercussions of the fierce partisanship that characterizes American politics, especially in Washington.
USA TODAY and the commission are co-hosting an interactive "town hall" meeting Wednesday at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., to start what the commission calls "a national conversation on American unity," including ways to respond.
The forum will include former elected officials from both parties, among them governors (Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho), senators (Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Olympia Snowe of Maine) and House members (Dan Glickman of Kansas, Henry Bonilla of Texas). Religious leaders, business executives, the founders of nonprofit organizations and others also will participate.
Other forums will follow at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Ohio State University in Columbus, and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.
Evidence of a new era of hyper-partisanship isn't hard to find, including the budget impasse that led to the imposition of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts last Friday. In three weeks, President Obama and congressional leaders could face the third fiscal showdown of the year with the expiration of the continuing resolution that funds the federal government. Failure to reach an accord on that would risk a government shutdown. (Congress hasn't agreed on an actual budget since 2009.)
"The sequester is yet the latest illustration of government-by-crisis," says Tom Daschle, a former Senate Democratic leader and co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center. Since he arrived as a freshman House member from South Dakota three decades ago, he says Washington has become increasingly dysfunctional. "It's not just the number of filibusters; it's really the lack of progress," he says. "By and large, it's becoming harder and harder to govern."
On that, the public agrees:
- Three of four, including 80% of Republicans and 73% of Democrats, say American politics has become more divided in recent years.
- A majority on both sides say politics are more divided because both parties have changed: Democrats becoming more liberal and Republicans more conservative.
- Three of four say the deeper division is a bad thing, because it makes things harder to get done. Just one in five call it a good thing because it gives voters a real choice.
- A 55% majority say the divisions between the political parties in Washington doesn't mean there are deep divisions among everyday Americans. About a third, 35%, say Washington's divisions reflect a similar divide within the public.
The poll, taken by land-line and cellphone Feb. 18-21, has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.
"It doesn't tell you how to get out of the problem, but it does tell you that there's a real consensus among Republicans, Democrats and independents about the shape of the problem," Ayres says of the findings — not to mention broad agreement that it is a problem.
Fire tongs and Federalists
To be sure, American politics have been a contact sport from the start. In 1798, during a debate on the House floor over the Alien and Sedition Act, Connecticut Rep. Roger Griswold, a Federalist, attacked Vermont Rep. Mathew Lyon with a cane. The Democrat-Republican retreated to the chamber's fire pit to grab a pair of fire tongs and fight back.
Biting commentary and scurrilous allegations of the sort favored on talk radio and modern-day blogs aren't new, either. Benjamin Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, edited one of the partisan newspapers of his day, the Philadelphia Aurora, which backed the Jeffersonians. The paper created a firestorm when it suggested that George Washington secretly had collaborated with the British during the Revolution.
Politicians love to praise bipartisan efforts in Washington, and yet hyperpartisanship has been on the rise since the Clinton administration adding to gridlock and low legislative productivity. What's going on?
Today's instantaneous commentary by a new wave of partisan media fuels tempers and, in some cases, has eroded a sense of civility in public discourse. The growing ideological divide between the two major parties, stoked by the gerrymandering of congressional districts and the financial clout of interest groups, has made it more and more difficult to find common ground.
Despite big challenges facing the nation, Congress was less productive legislatively in 2012 than in any year since the end of World War II.
"Now you've got — I hate to say it this way — the far right in the Republican Party and the far left in the Democratic Party and, as (William Butler) Yeats would say in his poem, the center would not hold," says former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, a co-chairman of the BPC Commission on Political Reform. "The fact that the Senate has not passed a budget in four years — how could that happen? The fact that they don't even do appropriations bills anymore? I mean, that's a fundamental thing you have to do to run the government."
He suggests the natural ebb and flow of politics eventually will help. "This, too, shall pass," he says. "We're at a moment in history, a moment in time, when there are people in these positions who don't communicate and who don't get along. I do believe the next generation … House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, will have a different attitude."
A National Journal analysis of congressional votes in 2012 charts the decline of voices in the middle. For the third year in a row, no Republican senator had a more liberal voting record than any Democrat; no Democratic senator had a more conservative record than any Republican. In the House, just 10 Democrats were more conservative than the most liberal Republican; only five Republicans were more liberal than the most conservative Democrat.
That sharpening divide is reflected in the way voters assess presidents and political parties. Ninety percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion of President Obama; 80% of Republicans have an unfavorable one. Eighty-three percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of former president George W. Bush; 76% of Democrats have an unfavorable one.
On the most basic question of the government's role there is a similar divide. Two-thirds of Democrats say the government should do more to help people. Three-fourths of Republicans say the government is doing too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals.
Easy to understand, then, why it's been hard to reach a bipartisan accord on the budget.
Even so, there's this disparity: If Republicans and Democrats tend to march in lockstep behind their political parties, they are less likely to do so on some issues that define the parties.
On abortion, for instance, fewer than half of Democrats say abortion should be allowed in most or all circumstances (the position of the Democratic platform). Only 18% of Republicans think abortion should never be allowed (the position of the Republican platform).
Abortion rights, the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage are issues that distinguish and divide the two parties. But in the survey, less than a third of Democrats and 20% of Republicans agree with their party on all three of them. The divide seems to have more to do with support of a party and its leaders — and dislike, even demonization, of the opposition.
Nearly everyone has chosen sides. Forty-five percent of those surveyed call themselves Democrats or say they "lean" Democratic; 36% say they are Republicans or "lean" to the GOP. Fifteen percent are independents who say they don't lean in either direction.
Asked to rate the trustworthiness of the parties' Washington leaders on a scale of 1 to 10, almost a third of Democrats and Republicans give the opposition party a 1, the lowest possible. (Interestingly, only 8% of Republicans and 13% of Democrats give their own leaders a "10," the highest rating.)
The public's partisan preferences are reflected in everything from whom they marry to where they get their news. Two-thirds of Republicans report watching Fox News at least a few times a week; half of Democrats are watching MSNBC that often. Two-thirds of Democrats and three-fourths of Republicans say their spouse or significant other is in the same political party as they are. By almost 2-1, so are most members of their families.
But close to half say their friends, their co-workers and the people in their neighborhood are either equally split between the parties or mostly from the other side. Asked about those they talk to specifically about politics, more than half say they talk to people with a mix of views. One-third stick mostly to people who agree with them.
That, at least, may be a bit encouraging. "We think about people living in their own political silos, and that is often the case with a spouse or a family," Ayres says. "But a great many of us spend time around those who think differently than we do, whether in our neighborhood, workplace, or church. At least we're not always talking to people who think exactly like we do."