There's been much discussion in recent years over how politically polarized the U.S. has become. Hopeless divisions between Republicans and Democrats – and even within the GOP itself – has led to failures in passing legislation in a timely and effective manner. While compromise is the name of the game in Washington D.C., some wonder if the huge gulf between left and right might lead to a kind of permanent malaise in our national body politic that could hamper economic growth and worsen the state of political dialogue.
But, how polarized really are we?
International Business Times spoke to Jamie Chandler, a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York, for his views on this topic.
IBTIMES: Would you agree that politics in the U.S. are more polarized than ever before? Or is that an exaggeration?
CHANDLER: The national media and politicians have exaggerated the degree to which the public is divided on social and economic issues.
Public opinion research indicates that there's little difference in opinions between people living in the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states.
A majority of both support at roughly the same amounts Roe vs. Wade [ruling on abortion], gun rights, equal rights for women, and the death penalty.
And they also support (at about the same rate) lower taxes, less regulation, and government spending to stimulate the economy. If the public were really polarized, for example, 80 percent of people living in ‘blue’ states would support abortion right, and only 20 percent of those living in ‘red’ states would.
True polarization rests on the political level. Politicians and the media like to portray a division because conflict attracts audiences and voters. The talk of polarization also compels strongly partisan voters and activists to engage in political campaigns and party politics.
IBTIMES: The contemporary Republican Party seems to be composed of three distinct segments: mainstream fiscal conservatives who are ‘liberal’ on social issues; the socially conservative religious evangelicals; and the Tea Party. How numerically strong and influential are each of these groups?
CHANDLER: Those segments aren't as distinct as they've been portrayed in the media. In fact, they overlap.
Both the ‘social conservative’ and Tea Party segments are primarily composed of white, middle-class voters who share similar views on a range of issues. Northeastern Republicans still fit the mode of traditional fiscal conservatives, but their brand of Republicanism is in decline.
One of the interesting facts of the Tea Party movement is that a number of social conservative leaders came together after the 2008 presidential election and developed a strategy to emphasize the economy over social issues. The rationale was that conservative stances on social issues were unattractive to moderate voters.
Although the Tea Party has been portrayed as a grassroots movement, it was more a coordinated effort by socially conservative party activists who wanted to win seats in government. Many Tea Party politicians elected in 2010 have aggressively pushed socially conservative legislation, especially on the state-level.
Numerically, social conservatives dominate the Republican Party, and have a very strong say over the party’s agenda and who will be its presidential nominee. For example, 75 percent of the Republican Iowa Caucus voters of 2008 were Evangelical Christians.
Fiscal conservatives are the shrinking old guard, and libertarians may be the possible future.
Younger Republicans more frequently identify themselves with Ron Paul’s positions than others, but they will not have much influence over the direction of the party for another decade.
The Tea Party, however, is much more ideologically pure than the other segments and they are much less likely to compromise with the Republican Party or with Democrats.
The real difference amongst Republicans is on the political level: newly-elected Republicans and incumbent Republicans are fighting over the party’s ideological center.
IBTIMES: The Southern evangelicals (led by Jerry Falwell and others) were credited for helping Ronald Reagan win by a landslide in 1980. What did Christian conservatives do before 1980 -- were they just inactive in national politics?
CHANDLER: Actually, Christian conservatives played a key role in helping to get Democrat Jimmy Carter elected in 1976. President Carter’s self professed, born-again Christian background strongly appealed to evangelical voters, but he lost those voters when came out in support for Roe vs. Wade and the Equal Rights Amendment halfway through his term.
Carter also didn’t share the views of [Falwell’s] Moral Majority that he unify his religious and political positions and reject the liberal views of the Democratic Party. Reagan won these voters in 1980.
IBTIMES: What, if anything, distinguishes the Tea Party from the evangelical Christians?
CHANDLER: Ideologically, most of the 2010 election polls indicate that the Tea Party and evangelical Christians showed roughly the same level of conservative support for social and economic conservative issues.
The Tea Party is not a unique and distinct electorate separate from the conservative base, but rather a subset of this base that has capitalized on an opportunity to parlay an economic message into electoral gains.
Demographically, Tea Party members are more likely to be male, older than 45, wealthier and have attained higher education levels than the average Republican, while most Evangelicals tend to lag slightly behind the average American in education and income.
Unlike the Tea Party, the overall U.S. evangelical population is not monolithically Republican. About half identify themselves as Republican, and another quarter as Democrat. The rest are swing or non-voters.
IBTIMES: Do mainstream, ‘secular’ Republicans feel threatened by the extreme right wing of the party?
CHANDLER: Both the Tea Party and Evangelicals have been a big challenge to mainstream Republicans. Evangelical voters pulled the party to right during the [George W.] Bush administration, and the Tea Party has accelerated this effect since the 2010 election.
This trend has manifested itself electorally in that many moderate Republican politicians have retired or have lost their primary races to more conservative Republicans. In Washington, it has been very difficult for moderate Republicans to push compromise.
The Tea Party has actively threatened primary fights against a number of moderate Republicans up for re-election in 2012, including: Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Richard Lugar of Indiana. Moderate Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman campaigns have been non-starters.
IBTIMES: Apparently, many Democrats (in the south and in the Northeast) voted en masse for Republican Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972; and for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Do these ‘conservative Democrats’ still exist? And do they feel alienated by the extreme left-wing of the Democratic Party?
CHANDLER: Conservative Democrats are a dying breed. Although many ‘Blue Dogs’, as conservative Democrats call themselves, were elected in 2006, most of those representatives lost their seats in 2010 to Tea Party Republican candidates.
The decline of the conservative Democrat began during the Civil Rights and Voting Rights act in the mid-1960s. Between the 1930s and 1960s, the Democratic Party had been composed of a coalition of divergent southern and northeastern Democrats, who were mollified by incentives from party leaders to unify toward a common goal. Through the 1960s, however, the Democratic Party became more liberal and urban. Conservative Southern Democratic politicians either retired or joined the Republican Party.
Southern Democratic voters followed when the Republicans instituted a southern mobilization strategy during Nixon’s 1972 campaign, and again during Reagan’s 1980 campaign. Conservative Democrats elected in 2006 had a difficult time working with the liberal wing of the party, particularly during the negotiations for the economic stimulus, auto industry bailout, and the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act of 2009. Most of these Democrats lost their seats in 2010, after campaigning in highly-contested, expensive races.
There are very few conservative Democratic politicians left in the party today.
IBTIMES: Let’s talk about race and ethnicity. Black Americans overwhelmingly support the Democrats (95 percent of them voted for Obama in 2008). Has the GOP given up on trying to recruit blacks, or are they making some headway?
CHANDLER: The Republican Party has had a difficult time attracting Black voters due to its opposition to affirmative action, public assistance, extension of parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a number of other government programs that benefit African-Americans.
The party attempted to make some inroads in the black community when it appointed Michael Steele as head of the Republican National Committee in 2009, but that effort was unsuccessful. Fundamentally, the demographics of the Republican Party don’t lend themselves to attracting black voters. The party is largely made up of white, middle-class suburban voters. Black voters are more urban and tend to have lower incomes than the average American. They also vote much less frequently than voters from other ethnic groups.
Although black voter turnout increased in 2008, it fell back to historic averages in the 2010 election. Ideologically, black voters hold more socially conservative views than the average democrat: they are less likely to support gay rights, for example. But they will likely continue to be attracted to the Democratic Party for many years to come.
IBTIMES: What about other minorities, Hispanics and Asians? Are they still firmly in the Democrat camp? Or are more of them gradually moving rightward?
CHANDLER: From an ideological perspective, Hispanic and Asians voters are more conservative than the average Democrat. But like Blacks, Hispanics and Asians are not likely to leave the Democratic Party. Republicans briefly tried to attract Hispanics during the 2000 and 2004 election season, but the Republican’s hard line stance on immigration has since alienated these voters. Asian voters have received little attention from the Republican Party because Asians tend to live in urban areas, which are strongly controlled by Democrats, and because they comprise a smaller share of the electorate. Hispanic voters are the fastest growing segment of the electorate and Democrats stand to gain increased electoral power toward the end of the decade should they continue to maintain Hispanic loyalty to the party.
IBTIMES: Given the fractured nature of contemporary politics, do you think a viable Third Party can arise (perhaps an offshoot of the Tea Party)?
CHANDLER: It would be impossible for a viable third party to rise in America due fundamentally to the structure of the U.S. voting system.
Unlike many other countries, American elections are ‘winner-take-all.’ The candidate who wins the most votes wins the seat, and the loser gets nothing. In many other countries, proportional voting systems allow candidates achieve some threshold of votes to win a seat in Parliament. A proportional system provides an incentive for multiple parties to emerge and persist.
There is no such incentive for an American third-party to grow and prosper for many election cycles -- that party would not be able to win a majority of votes in multiple races. In some cases, state laws also limit the ability of a third party to emerge.
This is not to say that new parties haven’t arisen in the past. In 1828, the Democratic Party arose, and in 1854, the Republican Party. But these new parties came about because of major structural changes or conflict within the political system.
The rise of the Democratic Party came about because of effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1815, which gave all white males the right to vote (only property owners could vote prior to that), and the single party political system between 1800 and 1824. The Republican Party formed in reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act [which created the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska and repealed the Missouri Compromise] and the other events that lead to the Civil War.
In past elections, such as when Ralph Nader ran under the Green Party in 2000, or Ross Perot under the Reform Party in 1992, these candidates represented movements of disaffected voters versus representing new and enduring political institutions.
Third-party movements typically appear when a segment of one or the other party members feels that its views are not being heard.
During the Clinton Administration, the Democratic Party adopted a “New Democrat” strategy, that is, the party moved to the middle under the assumption that moderation would help Democrats win moderate Republican voters.
But the ’New Democrats’ alienated liberals making them ripe to become Ralph Nader supporters in 2000. Nader achieved about 3 percent of the national vote in that election. Vice President Gore’s loss to George W. Bush led the Democratic Party to adopt a more unifying electoral strategy under Howard Dean. This change enabled the Democrat to re-take control of Congress in 2006, and helped President Obama win the White House in 2008.