The elites have reason to cheer the expansion of political polarization and the “presidential approval gap,” now wider than it’s been since the 1950s. “If Americans remain habitually tied to the slash-and-burn politics of the new millennium, then the process wins, the status quo wins.”
By S.T. Patrick
Are Americans more politically polarized than at any time in recent history? According to the work of the Pew Research Center, the answer is yes. While polarization statistics have hit an apex during and because of the Trump presidency, the trend is not brand new. A fuller divide began growing during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies.
Political polarization is measured by the approval gap—the presidential approval rating difference between supporters of both parties. The Trump gap numbers are at an all-time high: Republicans overwhelmingly approve of the job he has done in office, while Democrats give him historically low approval numbers. The gap is, therefore, wider than it has been in modern polling history, which began in the 1950s.
At certain points, the approval gap has mirrored the gap on issues between genders, age groups, races, and income levels. Not today. In the Eighties, the approval gap was an anomaly.
While Ronald Reagan was more polarizing toward the end of his presidency, Americans still shared similar views on certain issues, regardless of party identification. The gap between the GOP and Democrats on immigration in 1984 was a mere two points. Today, there is a 42-point difference between the way self-identifying Republicans and Democrats view immigration. The same can be said for more general issues.
On the state of the national economy, Republicans and Democrats were within 10 points throughout the Clinton years. Today, the opinion gap between the two on the health of the economy is 37 points. For the first time in over five decades, the American opinion on issues directly correlates to the widening gap on presidential approval. Political polarization has become all-encompassing.
Were there any other factors that caused this divide? Could it only be the Trump effect? How does this cement the power of the elite class that controls the elections, the economy, and war?
First, we must look at the stratification of our entertainment options. The rise of talk radio and ideological cable news in the 1990s caused Americans to pitch a tent in one camp. There was no middle ground allowed. If you were a devotee of Rush Limbaugh, then liberals were “tree-huggers” or “Femi-Nazis.” Hosts on the now defunct left-leaning Air America classified conservatives as people who would harm the elderly or disregard children to put another buck into their own pockets.
From the successes of talk radio came the divisions in cable news. Fox News has now become the “honest” news outlet for Republicans, and MSNBC has become the “dependable” source for Democratic political analysis. The disingenuous part of it is that both stations refuse to admit a tie to either party or ideology.
Because politics has now become a full-fledged sporting event, Americans are led to cheer anyone who wears the team colors. Debates are now gotcha-fests and speeches are now pep rallies, many replete with actual cheerleaders from local schools. A chorus of choreographed hisses are then propelled at the arch-rival—anyone from the other party. Each politician is turned into a caricature of a label that has been created by talking heads of the opposing party’s vast media machine. Polarization is now a billion-dollar industry combining public relations, personal vetting, image creation, news gathering, labelling, and advertising.
The losers in this political game are the American voters. As each presidential election approaches, those same talking heads begin banging the predictable drums that this election cycle is “the most consequential election in American history.” If you don’t vote for “our candidate,” then it’s as good as voting for the other dreadful candidate. Anyone questioning the monopoly that both parties have on the election process is told that they are wasting their vote and just helping to elect the more sinful candidate. Supporters of Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul are still questioning the legitimacy of their chosen party’s own internal processes.
For decades, there have been signs that the age of polarization was coming. Reagan used “the evil empire,” after all, in reference to the Russians, not the Democrats. But with Hillary Clinton’s accusation of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” Bush’s claim that “you’re either with us or against us,” and Obama’s criticism that conservatives are “bitter” and “cling to their guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” the divisions grew. Has half of the country ever really been deplorable? Despite verbal foibles, Bill Clinton sought a working relationship with Newt Gingrich, Bush spoke of a conservatism that is compassionate, and Obama often discussed uniting the country. In Trump, we have the first president who embraces rather than distances himself from the trends of political entertainment.
His nature demands that you love him or hate him. The moderate center that defines the true ideologies of most Americans is anathema to both the president and the current media.
If Americans remain habitually tied to the slash-and-burn politics of the new millennium, then the process wins, the status quo wins. Politicians continue to play the role of victorious, ruling winner or organized, critical loser, until voters cycle each to the other side for a so-called change. But in the end, the elites stay in power, forcing the populace to wear the t-shirt, buy the foam finger, and care about the future of political parties whose motivations show little concern for them. And it is for this that we are divided?
S.T. Patrick holds degrees in both journalism and social studies education. He spent 10 years as an educator and now hosts the “Midnight Writer News Show.” His email is STPatrickAFP@gmail.com.