How polarized are we across party lines?
Well, according to at least one fairly reasonable way to measure it, polarization is the worst in modern political history.
Pollsters have been regularly measuring the approval ratings of presidents since the Eisenhower administration. And, of course, every president has a significantly higher approval rating among members of his own party than among members of the opposition party. For example, in an average of polls taken during his eight years in office, Eisenhower had an approval rating of 88 percent among Republicans and 49 percent among Democrats, so the gap was 39 percentage points. The size of that gap might sound high on first hearing, since we think everyone liked Ike.
Skipping all the way ahead to President Obama, he has had an average approval rating of 81 percent among Democrats, but just 14 percent among Republicans. That 14 is a record low for any president’s approval rating among the opposition party, and the size of the gap between the approval by the two parties (67 points) is the also a record width.
If you think this is all about Obama Derangement Syndrome, that’s too short-term of a thought.
From Eisenhower (1953-61) until Jimmy Carter (1977-81), the gap in approval by party stayed within a fairly small range. (Carter’s gap of 27 was actually the smallest ever measured, but that’s because his approval rating fell quite low among his own party.)
Then Ronald Reagan set a new polarization record (according to this measure). The Gipper had an average approval rating of 83 percent among Repubs, but just 31 among Dems, for a gap of 52 points. But this kind of gap became the new normal, with a slight upward curve. Bill Clinton broke Reagan’s polarization record with a gap of 53 points, then George W. Bush broke that with a new record, 58, and now comes Obama with the biggest gap and the biggest jump in the size of the gap, 67 points.
The movement has mostly occurred on the opposition-party side of the equation. Ike and Obama both had approval in the 80s from their own party. But in the less polarized 1950s, Ike had an approval rating of 49 percent of members of the opposition party. Obama’s approval among Republicans started out below 25 percent and has fallen steadily into single digits so that it averages out at just 14 percent and will almost certainly fall lower during his final year in office.
All of this is just another way of illustrating the steady descent of the country into more and more polarization along party lines.
You think it’s bad now…
When I recently hit upon the Pew study where these numbers come from, I was going to write a piece saying this is the most polarized our nation has ever been. And it is, in the era of polling. But at the same time I have begun reading Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle’s new book about Abraham Lincoln and his economic views, titled “A Just and Generous Nation.” Chapter 3 begins thus:
Abraham Lincoln won election as president of the United States by carrying every Northern state except New Jersey. No candidate…had ever before taken the presidency with such an exclusively regional vote. Lincoln failed to carry a single Southern state — and his name did not even appear on the ballot in ten of them.
Holzer and Garfinkle add that, while Lincoln was on the ballot in some southern states, he carried only 2 percent of the total vote in the South. In Kentucky — which, ironically, was the state of Lincoln’s birth — he got less than 1 percent. There has never been U.S. election that divided so totally along sectional lines. And, of course, Lincoln’s election led fairly directly to the secession crisis followed by the Civil War. So, you see, I believe that there have been more polarized times in our history, not that this should really make you feel any better.