In exit polls after the 2016 election, voters were asked, “Which candidate quality matters most?” Respondents gave one of four responses: the candidate cares about me; the candidate can bring change; the candidate has the right experience; and the candidate has good judgement. Of these responses, one received almost twice the response of the next most frequent response. Thirty nine percent of those polled said that bringing about change was the quality that mattered most in determining their vote.
Change has been on the mind of the electorate since the beginning. Any challenge to the party in power must somehow resort to the illustration of contrast between the status quo, or the incumbent party, and the change promised by the challenging party. President Obama ran on the idea of “Change you can believe in,” in contrast to a deeply unpopular President Bush. President Clinton ran for president in 1992 on the theme, “For people, for a change,” in response to changing times in a post-Cold War era. In 1980, President Reagan posed the simple question insinuating change: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Any time an incumbent party is not reelected, the electorate is opting for change.
Yet for as long as the American government has been around, change has somehow meant something different than it does today. Prior to 2008, change referred to a change in leadership, as it did in 1980 when Reagan defeated Carter after just one term. Change also referred to a change in policy, as it did in 1932 when the country rebuked President Herbert Hoover for Franklin Roosevelt in the midst of the Great Depression. Prior to 2008, change was primarily argued over disagreements of direction or leadership, but today the call for change is much more epistemological of our government. Rather than debating the policy or leadership of our government, as we had before, we are now collectively seeking change that would allow us to come together, to compromise, to collaborate.
The irony is the leaders who simultaneously stump for a coming together also only benefit electorally from significant contrast. Furthermore, the electorate that wants change has evolved in a way that makes it even more difficult to achieve.
The PEW Research Center published a report in 2014 entitled Political Polarization in the American Public, which found, not surprisingly, that ideological uniformity and political divide has doubled over the past two decades. Democrats consider themselves more consistently Democratic and Republicans consider themselves more consistently Republican. Perhaps more telling, however, is the change in how each party views the other. PEW found not only that we are more divided ideologically, but also that our views of the other party have deteriorated substantially to the point that 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans view the other party as a threat to the nation’s wellbeing. Whether this is the result of political division or the cause, it is insufficient to describe our political system as simply divided by party because significant portions of each party distrust the other party to do what is best for the country.
These results alone explain the stalemate in our government, but PEW goes further, dissecting the differences between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans largely prefer larger homes with more space whereas Democrats prefer smaller homes in more walkable communities. Not surprisingly, Democrats favor communities with racial and ethnic diversity whereas Republicans prefer communities that share their religious faith. We see these results in our electoral map; blue are the states with significant urban areas, and red are the states with significant rural populations.
Perhaps more importantly, we see it in our political process. The most conservative and the most liberal tend to be both the most engaged in the political process and more likely to contribute financially directly to candidates. The results, as we are that moderates and centrists have a much more difficult time navigating the primary process, because those statistically most likely to support those types of candidates are also the least likely to be active and engaged in the political process. As a result, party contests are increasingly won by the most conservative or liberal candidate running. This disenfranchises the middle during both the primary and general election and greater perpetuates the divide.
We can see this trickle into the government as the more conservative or liberal elected officials become, the less likely they are to cooperate and compromise with their political opposition. With a nearly indiscernible number of moderates in either party, it is not hard to see why government action is increasingly along party lines.
This trend may get worse before it gets better, as we have witnessed the deterioration of political civility over the last two decades. There may be even slimmer majorities in Congress and even tighter partisan results, but what is clear is that the further the divide becomes, the more difficult it will be for either conservatives or liberals to act, govern and lead which will inevitably lead only to a perpetual game of musical chairs for control of the government.
The majority of Americans, however, do not hold uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most people do not see either party as a threat to the well-being of our country. Most believe that elected officials should work together, regardless of party, to address our nation’s problems. However, most are also not involved and do not participate. The key to reversing the bastardized process is not to allow the partisans to continue to fight each other, but for the majority to get involved and bring back an emphasis on results and productivity over political winning and losing.
If our country is able to do that, everything, from our political discourse to our water infrastructure, will benefit.
Will Brown is NUCA’s director of Government Affairs.