The Great Divider

A Divider, Not a Uniter: George W. Bush and the American People, the 2006 Election, and Beyond by Gary C. Jacobson (Longman, 192 pages, $14.60)

The American Power Struggle: The Transformation of American Politics by Earl Black & Merle Black (Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $26.00)

With George W. Bush and the Iraq War currently mired in unpopularity, it's striking to recall that as recently as two years ago one could get a serious hearing for the proposition that Bush's 2004 reelection heralded the dawn of a new era of GOP political dominance. Liberals have thus far resisted the temptation to respond in kind, but if the Democrats recapture the White House in 2008 and, as seems likely, make at least small gains in the Senate, gleeful triumphalism will not be far behind. For the moment, however, the Democrats' revival and the return of divided government have mostly served to reconfirm the conventional wisdom of six years ago that the American electorate is sharply divided between the two parties.

A book dedicated to the proposition that Bush has been a divisive, polarizing president does not, therefore, sound all that promising as an innovative work of political analysis. Still, A Divider, Not a Uniter, by political scientist Gary C. Jacobson, shows that the conventional wisdom in this case is right. Even better, Jacobson does us the favor of operationalizing the concept of polarization so that we can see not only that the claim about Bush's polarizing impact is true but what, exactly, is true about it.

In many ways the public is less substantively divided today than it was a generation ago, when both white supremacy and black nationalism had substantial followings and there were repeated instances of political violence. Nevertheless, Americans have become more divided along lines of partisanship, and they are especially polarized over Bush personally and the policies identified with him. All presidents, of course, are generally best liked by their co-partisans and least liked by members of the other party, with independents in between. As Jacobson shows in his historical tables, however, Bush's average partisan approval gap is larger than that of any of his predecessors.

Even more noteworthy, however, is the rapidly changing size of the gap. Traditionally, the tendency has been for presidential approval among co-partisans, independents, and supporters of the opposition to move roughly in tandem. All three groups support the president at different levels, but they move up and down in response to events in parallel. For recent presidents, this pattern has begun to erode, and during the Bush administration, it's been strikingly hard to discern.

The Bush years have seen spectacular swings in overall presidential approval. Having entered office after losing the popular vote, Bush was an unusually unpopular first-year chief executive from the day of his inauguration. He was, however, enormously popular (to the tune of an 89 percent approval rating) with his fellow Republicans. Over the next nine months, his rating slowly declined among Democrats and independents, but not at all among Republicans. When September 11 shot Bush's approval to sky-high levels, Republicans -- who could hardly have become any more positive than before -- barely budged. By November 2001 the president's approval among the public as a whole began a mostly steady decline, but the decline came almost exclusively among Democrats and independents, while Republicans stayed loyal. Similarly, Jacobson demonstrates that during the Bush years, Democrats and Republicans have given sharply divergent answers not only to questions of opinion but also to factual questions about their assessment of the economy, supposed evidence of Iraqi complicity in 9-11, and so forth.

Jacobson's exhaustive defense of what appears to be merely a cliché is valuable precisely because counter-clichés are always lurking in the weeds. For years one popular narrative in the highbrow press has described conservative disgruntlement with Bush, whose willingness to embrace high levels of public expenditure and a substitution of messianic militarism for traditional realism are said to have turned off many conservatives -- many conservative intellectuals, perhaps, as several books have been written on the subject, but a historically tiny number of actual voters. Judged by his massive level of support among self-identified Republicans, Bush should, by past precedent, have cruised to a crushing electoral victory. Instead, he squeaked out a narrow win in which Democrats voted overwhelmingly against him and independents, in small numbers, did as well.

The weakness of Jacobson's book, ultimately, is not the relative banality of its thesis but the paucity of explanation it offers. The author provides an exhaustive compendium of data that anyone wishing to write about the politics of the Bush years should consult, but the book presents little in the way of an argument about why this is happening or what it means. Jacobson makes a gesture toward Bush's divisive governing style, and another one to the rise of partisan media outlets, but he also notes that Bush represents an extreme point on a fairly continuous trend toward greater levels of polarization. Even Bill Clinton, who self-consciously sought to differentiate himself from the Democratic base and who passed a number of genuinely bipartisan pieces of major legislation, was an extremely polarizing figure when judged by historical standards.

A better place to look for the causes of polarization might be the regional realignment of American politics in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, the subject of Earl and Merle Black's Divided America, which looks at how "national political power is built up from local, state, regional, and sectional bases of support." Perhaps contemporary partisan polarization isn't so hard to explain -- why shouldn't Republicans like Republican presidents while Democrats detest them?

The mysterious thing about America is that this wasn't always so. The reason -- or at least a big part of the reason -- is that, famously, partisanship used to have only a weak correlation with ideology. America produced the polarized politics that is the natural state of two-party systems only after conservative white southerners entered the Republican Party in droves, northern progressives abandoned it, racial minorities solidly lined up with the Democrats, and traditionalist white Catholics became fully assimilated and began voting like traditionalist white Protestants.

Unfortunately, Black and Black's take on all this is not especially enlightening. Their thesis -- the South and the Plains are Republican, the Northeast and the Pacific Coast are Democratic, the Midwest is divided -- is, like Jacobson's, almost laughably banal. But while Jacobson's book backs up a disputable piece of conventional wisdom with convincing evidence, the Blacks' efforts to provide an empirical basis for what everyone already knows do more to undermine their theory than to support it.

The Blacks are the authors of the widely respected study The Rise of the Southern Republicans, and the sections of their new book dealing with the South and related topics are quite interesting. As they cross the Mason-Dixon Line, however, their analysis tends to get slipshod. They attribute the Democratic leaning of the Northeast, for example, to the "racial, religious, and nationality groups that comprise its highly urbanized population," the long experience of the region's Democrats in "constructing and maintaining coalitions based on highly diverse social groups," and the presence of large cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

There's obviously something to that, but it misses a crucial point: Large, racially diverse cities in all regions of the country vote Democratic. What makes the Northeast noteworthy is that white, rural states -- such as Vermont, Maine, and increasingly New Hampshire -- do so as well.

More to the point, the broader logic of regionalism appears questionable in many respects. If you want to understand the political dynamics in, say, Las Vegas, you should look at a whole class of high-growth Sun Belt cities with large Latino populations, including Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. You don't want to be told that Vegas, like Phoenix, is part of the "Mountains/Plains region" along with rural Utah, Omaha, and Fargo, whereas Los Angeles is in the "Pacific" and Houston is part of the "South."

The impulse to describe American politics in regionalist terms is an understandable reflex for authors who've specialized in the political history of Dixie, and it well suits the recent preoccupation with red states versus blue states. As is well known, however, when you bore down to the county level, there is little evidence of kinds of states, as opposed to kinds of places. College towns, cities, and the inner suburbs of very large cities tend to vote Democratic; less-populated, whiter places tend to vote Republican. The state-by-state aggregates matter, of course, because that's how electoral votes and Senate seats get parceled out. For analytic purposes, however, the point is that Illinois contains a giant city and Indiana does not -- not that Hoosiers, as such, have some characteristics of Republican-ness that demographically similar residents of Illinois lack.

Following this thinking all the way up to the regional level makes the reasoning still less illuminating. To say that Alaska belongs in a Pacific region along with Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii does nothing to enhance our understanding of the politics of any of those places. Worse, the regional frame winds up obscuring what's actually happening in American politics. The Blacks' conceit is that both parties start with their regional bases and then fight it out in "The Divided Midwest." That's true, but the South contains the closely contested (albeit, in demographic terms, not entirely southern) state of Florida, whose decisive role in recent American politics is not exactly obscure. What's more, the image of trench warfare between the two parties over the midwestern no-man's-land obscures the system's potential for dynamism. California, after all, flipped from Republican stronghold to Democratic pillar in very little time as a result of demographic and other changes. It's not absurd for Democrats to hope for a similar pattern in the Southwest (perhaps eventually including Texas) and Virginia (Maryland, after all, voted with the South once upon a time), or for the Republicans to hope that suburbanization and deunionization will help their cause in the Midwest.

A glance at Jacobson's poll charts reminds us what a fleeting thing political success is. Polarization has been a semi-constant theme of the Bush years, but the president who once enjoyed record-high approval levels is, today, flirting with Nixon territory. The political X-factor, as Harold MacMillan famously remarked, is "events, my dear boy, events." Had Bush responded effectively to the challenges of 9-11, one could imagine the GOP regaining Reaganesque levels of dominance. Instead, his policies have failed and created a moment of opportunity for Democrats -- one whose outcome, boring as it is to observe, will depend in part on the quality of their own efforts and in part on events outside their control. Popular (or unpopular) response to contingencies, if sustained, can create not just the appearance of political dominance but the reality as well.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

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