Raising the capital gains tax rate or building the Keystone XL pipeline aren’t insignificant issues. But they pale compared with the 1960’s fights over racial justice, the Vietnam War or whether the federal government should create and manage a national health insurance program for the elderly.
Yet polarization along partisan lines is greater today than it was two generations ago when those divisive, and far more consequential, battles were fought.
That reality is highlighted by the new Bloomberg Politics-Des Moines Register poll of likely participants in the Iowa presidential caucuses a year from now. In Iowa, likely caucus- goers in each party tend to be very ideologically committed. Still, on almost every issue, the Democrats and Republicans surveyed in late January expressed dramatically different views.
Iowa Republicans, by 82 percent to 12 percent, want to build the Keystone oil pipeline; Iowa Democrats oppose the project by two-to-one. Democrats, by 84 percent to 13 percent, want to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to pay for middle-class tax cuts; Republicans disagree by more than a three-to-one margin.
The intensity of the partisan disagreements recalls the observation — variously attributed to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan or former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, among others — that academic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so small.
There are numerous explanations for increased polarization. One is a campaign finance system awash in money, which produces more attack ads and negativity while repelling centrists. Another is sorting: Residential housing patterns in recent decades have tended to create enclaves dominated either by Republicans or by Democrats.
In a fascinating article last week at NYTimes.com, Thomas Edsall cited several academic studies showing a rise in political hostility. One that knocks your socks off: The number of Democrats and Republicans who would be displeased if their children married someone of the opposite party has jumped almost tenfold over the past half century.
Edsall noted another study indicating that politically homogeneous neighborhoods lead to less interpersonal contact with those of the opposite party. Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford University, told Edsall that such sorting makes it “easier for people to buy into the caricature and stereotypes” about members of the rival party.
The media also play a prominent role. On cable television left-wingers flock to MSNBC and the right to Fox News. Both networks have news anchors who aren’t driven by ideology, though they are in the minority. On the web, conservatives read the Drudge Report or Red State, while liberals prefer sites such as Think Progress or Talking Points Memo. Social media networks reinforce partisanship, especially views that the other side is bad.
Some of the studies cited by Edsall suggest that the political and cultural divide is primal, running deeper than the political passions of the moment. It also runs broader. Instead of a few key divisive issues, Edsall wrote, “almost every issue from foreign policy to taxes to lifestyle issues has been drawn into the left vs right alignment.”
Partisan views of marijuana legalization support the claim. The Bloomberg Politics-Des Moines Register Iowa poll found that Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to legalization. Democrats are strongly in favor.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist
© 2015, Bloomberg News.