Who Is to Blame for Polarization?

For as much as Beltway pundits and old Washington hands pine for a new age of bipartisanship, the simple fact—as this new Gallup analysis suggests—is that the conditions for bipartisan cooperation have long since evaporated. President Barack Obama, for example, is the most polarizing president in Gallup polling history, followed by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (if you isolate George W. Bush’s last three years, polarization is extremely high):


Although presidents always try to pursue policies that satisfy their supporters—and, in most cases, anger the opposition—it’s important to remember that presidents themselves aren’t responsible for the increase in polarization. That Republicans and Democrats have a stark contrast in opinions on the performance of President Obama has less to do with Obama, and everything to do with the public itself, which has grown more ideological and more partisan over the last 30 years. To wit, co-partisans are more likely to live near each other—think cities and suburbs—and their representatives tend to reflect that fact.

Moreover, this polarization doesn’t effect all sides equally. Politico’s John Harris and Jonathan Allen bring in University of Georgia political scientist Keith Poole to offer an explanation:

“The Republican Party has been steadily moving to the right since the 1970s,” Poole said. “The Republicans have moved about three times the speed to the right as the Democrats have moved to the left.”

Indeed, in the same way that the Republican Party has marched to the right at a far faster rate than the Democratic Party has slid to the left, GOP voters—in particular, white Republicans in the South—became more ideological faster than Democratic voters, and to some degree, are still the most polarized voters in the country.

If Mitt Romney’s rhetoric is any indication, Republicans plan to hit Obama over his failure to “bring the country together.” And it’s true that the president ran on a promise to transcend partisan divisions—a promise which, as Ryan Lizza’s recent story in The New Yorker revealed, he desperately tried to fulfill. But this is one of the (many) things that is outside the control of the president; polarization and partisanship are here to stay, and our job is to accommodate them into our politics.

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