When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, my father would follow my mother around the house before Election Day, lecturing her to vote Republican. "I don't know who I'm voting for yet," my mother would lie, cheerily. "And it's a secret ballot, don't forget." Those exchanges — funny, good-natured, even sweet — bring home to me that while politics has always divided us, today our differences run deeper, wider and depressingly more bitter. Partisanship rules, from the halls of Congress to the kitchen table. We've traded in presenting facts for scoring points, precision for volume, dialogue for sarcasm. Or we've just shut up, ceding the floor to the most virulent.
So what does this mean for Election Day? Expect the nation to feel even less united. Expect another divided Congress, in numbers and in ideology. And expect the presidential winner, whether it's Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, to talk passionately about cooperation and bipartisanship. Just don't expect anyone to believe it.
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The latest installment of a Pew Research Center tracking survey showed that Americans are more polarized in their values and basic beliefs than at any time in the survey's 25 years.
"Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides," Pew said. "The average partisan gap has nearly doubled … from 10 percentage points in 1987 to 18 percentage points in the new study."
Other surveys show a similar hardening of positions. People who vote Democratic are more likely now to identify themselves as "liberal" than they were 30 years ago, while people who vote Republican are far, far more likely to identify themselves as "conservative."
The word "moderate" as a self-identifier is losing popularity.
This attitudinal shift shows up most clearly in polling since 2000, starting with the contested election of George W. Bush and then gaining steam with Barack Obama's victory four years ago. Vitriol once uncommon in polite political discourse ("fascist," "war criminal," even "Nazi") became easy rhetoric for some Bush critics. And for those who cannot abide Obama, "socialist" and "dictator" are among the more polite insults.
Gallup approval rating surveys show how much Obama and Bush have in common. In the eyes of their party stalwarts, they could do no wrong. But to members of the other party, they're abject failures.
In 2004, the year Bush was re-elected, his average approval rating from Republicans was 91 percent, while from Democrats it was only 15 percent. That party difference is 76 percentage points.
Now, through October 2012, Obama has averaged positive marks from 85 percent of Democrats and only 10 percent of Republicans. That's a 75-point disparity based on party affiliation.
Go back to Clinton, George H.W. Bush or even Reagan, and you'll see the disparity in Gallup polls fall to 60 and below. And Jimmy Carter, who today is a punch line for the right? In his last year in office, before losing to Reagan, 24 percent of Republicans approved of his performance. Twenty-four percent! (Sadly for Carter, only 53 percent of Democrats did.)
Some centrist observers point with hope to the decline in those who identify as Republican or Democrat. That is true. The parties are shrinking, according to Gallup, Pew and other polling organizations.
But here's the flip side: Those who identify as independents are increasingly less engaged in the electoral process. Those who do identify by party increasingly hold the hardest ideological positions their party offers. And those who lean the farthest on their party's ideological spectrum are by far the most likely of any Americans to vote. This is especially true for Republicans, which helps explain why the Tea Party movement wields such influence.
Writing for the FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times, Nate Silver teased apart data to show that over the last decade or more, the ideological identification of people who voted for Republicans in Congress has shifted measurably. In 2002, less than half of Republican voters called themselves "conservative." In the mid-term Republican rout of 2010, two-thirds described themselves as such.
"This is why Republican politicians find it difficult to compromise," Silver wrote. "Republican members of Congress have a mandate to remain steadfast to the conservatives who are responsible for electing them."
The numbers are less striking on the Democratic side, with self-described moderates still making up the plurality of the party. But the direction is the same.
The result is that the political middle, which itself has been drifting rightward since Reagan won the presidency, can be a cold, lonely place.
I know I don't talk politics much anymore. I'm wary of unintentionally offending someone or, worse, uncovering a true believer who will rattle off a string of easy absolutes about what's wrong with this country and how to fix it.
"It used to be we operated from a consensus,'' said Douglas Schoen, a longtime political strategist and commentator whose new book is called, "Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics and What It Means for 2012 and Beyond."
"Now we don't," Schoen said. "We operate from 'us versus them.' You see it with your own friends. I see it with mine."
Schoen has advised mostly Democrats in his career as a pollster and campaign strategist. But he works hard in "Hopelessly Divided" to blame both parties equally for the bad faith and intransigence that define our political system today.
"It's the parties," Schoen said in an interview. "It's the voters. And it's the system, with the special interests all being polarized. It's all reinforcing.
"Is there any element here that's pulling to the center? No. None."
Just ask Dick Lugar, now serving out his last term as the senior senator from Indiana.
For much of his political career, Lugar was a classic moderate Republican, routinely praised for working with both sides of the aisle and, among other things, for helping to secure nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I met with Lugar a couple of times when I was a Moscow correspondent. He was all you would expect in a veteran senator from Indiana — serious but not sober, comfortable in his own skin, informed, polite. We talked loose nukes, Chechnya, Kremlinology and U.S.-Russia relations. If he ever mentioned domestic politics, I don't remember it.
Now Lugar is a lame duck, bounced out of running for a seventh term when he lost a Republican primary in the spring to a Tea Party-backed candidate, Richard Mourdock. Where Lugar spent decades building bridges in Congress, Mourdock opened his general election campaign by saying this: "Bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view."
My mother liked Dick Lugar, too. She mostly voted Democrat when I was growing up — or so the family, my father included, assumed. But she split tickets, too, informed by her profound Roman Catholic faith, in search of candidates who shared her values and views on abortion, war and how a society should care for its most vulnerable. She appreciated Howard Baker and John Danforth and other moderate types who would seem out of place in today's Republican Party.
If she were still alive, my mother also would have liked things about Mitt Romney, I suspect. At least the Mitt Romney who served as governor of Massachusetts, who has presented himself over the last several weeks of the campaign not as "severely conservative" but as a centrist who values bipartisanship and can bring people together. Pair that Mitt Romney with a Democratic-controlled Congress and you could have the kind of government my mother would support, the kind of government a lot of Americans might support.
But that outcome is all but impossible. For starters, it's a valid question whether the things Romney said during the primaries or the things he said last week are what he truly believes. And if Romney wins, he will do so on the strength of Republican turnout, according to most projections. The coattails of a Romney win would help the Republicans hold onto the House and, perhaps, flip the Senate.
Simply put, a Republican sweep is far more likely than a split government in which Democrats lose the White House, hold the Senate and win back the House. Fewer than one in five voters splits a national ticket these days. And that trend is going down too; most ticket splitters are older voters.
As for the reverse split, with the Democrats in the White House and the GOP ruling Congress? The last two years of gridlock promises only that America would see a lot of Obama's veto pen until 2016 were that to occur.
Straight party voting never occurred to me when I started voting. That practice seemed no more responsible than the method my grandmother reportedly used — going down the ballot and checking every Irish name on it. (According to how my mother told it, that approach ended the day she realized that a man she helped elect bore less resemblance to the Mike Kelly she knew in her native Ireland and more to the Hall of Fame running back, and African-American, Leroy Kelly of the Cleveland Browns.)
Ticket splitting requires trust. You have to trust the politicians, at least somewhat. You have to trust the system. You have to believe that the two parties will try to work together, and that if one party gains the upper hand, it won't use it to cater to its own special interests and take revenge on the other side.
That trust has evaporated.
"The American people now understand far better than their leaders do that the U.S. political system has lost so much public confidence as to be unsustainable in its present form," Schoen writes in "Hopelessly Divided."
Schoen takes aim at the role of money in the electoral process and the role of lobbyists in influencing, if not writing, legislation. He blames the parties for enforcing more ideological purity than ever before, and then using gerrymandering and other tactics to distort the democratic process. And he warns that this broken system is not only robbing the nation of its ability to solve problems. It's robbing Americans of their hope for the future.
Colin McMahon is the Chicago Tribune's national content editor.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun