Intense polarity of views evident in loss of civility

The venomous conflict of the 2004 presidential election, which has pushed leaders to surprising new levels of partisan hostility, has spread to ordinary Americans.

Intolerance of political differences is growing, expert observers say. And while Republican and Democratic activists deplore the trend, each side blames the other.


"The anger, in my opinion, is due to Bush and his policies and his inability to articulate them," said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic national committeeman from California. "The other team has a player we all hate, and we're going to take it out on that team on the field."

Countered Republican Tom Korologos, a longtime lobbyist just sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Belgium: "The Democrats have made the president the devil, and you can't pummel him, or anybody, for that length of time without repercussions in Toledo and Salt Lake and Bakersfield."


Some consequences are right out of Romeo and Juliet.

"When a girl comes home and says, 'I'm going to date someone,' her parents want to know what county he's from," Mulholland said. "Republicans don't want their daughters dating Democrats, and Democrats don't want their daughters dating Republicans."

The level of intensity is reflected in the numbers of voters already identifying themselves as "strongly" for President Bush or Sen. John Kerry, the presumed Democratic nominee, said Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake. The two collaborate in producing the Battleground Poll for George Washington University.

"Normally, 'strong' voters run at 33 percent of a candidate's support, not the 40 percent we're seeing now," Lake said.

Goeas also points to the proportion of people who say they are "extremely likely" to vote: "It usually runs between 67 and 70 percent. The highest I ever saw it was 70 percent. This year we have 78 percent saying they are 'extremely likely' to vote."

In past elections, one side or the other has expressed intense feelings about the stakes or choices. "What I think you have for the first time is both sides being intense at the same time," Goeas said.

"We've become two warring nations," agreed independent pollster John Zogby. "The same incivility we have been experiencing within Washington in the last decade has spread out, and we are seeing it nationally now.

"What the vice president said was emblematic," Zogby continued, referring to Vice President Dick Cheney's telling Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont to "f-- -- yourself" in a well-publicized exchange late last month on the Senate floor.


Bush supporter Stanley Mills, a Leesburg, Va., businessman, is troubled by the tone of debate among his friends and neighbors -- even within his family.

"I was talking to my brother-in-law just last week -- he's for Kerry -- and he got so mad I had to tell him that if we can't discuss politics without getting upset and angry, we'll just have to quit," Mills said. "I think it's very disturbing you can't discuss differences of opinion without it evolving into a shouting match."

Amy Burke, a Democratic national committeewoman active in Alabama politics for 50 years, also mourns the loss of civil discourse.

"I'm sensing that people are very much more emotional about political choices, very vehement, and I'm talking about the man in the street," she said. "When you try to reason with people with some logic, it doesn't sink in. They don't want to bother with facts."

Bush is a measurably polarizing figure. Republican Bill McInturff of the polling firm Public Opinion Strategies uses an "intensity range" to show that public attitudes are significantly stronger on this president than they were on Democrat Bill Clinton in 1996 or Bush's father in 1992.

When McInturff adds the percentage of Democrats who strongly disapprove of Bush (69 percent) to the percentage of Republicans who strongly approve of him (68 percent), the "intensity range" is 137 percent -- almost double the 72 percent range for George H.W. Bush. The range for Clinton (in this case, Republican disapproval added to Democratic approval) was 92 percent.


"It's stunning. I have never in my life seen these kinds of numbers on the level of intensity on both sides," McInturff said. "We are seeing the largest gap in American history in approval and disapproval by party. The level at which people are locking in is without precedent."

Walking in Washington's sun-splashed Lafayette Park across from the White House on a recent afternoon, Jean and Lee Bondurant, tourists from the suburbs of Seattle, said they feel the unfamiliar tension among friends and neighbors. They blame the man in the Oval Office.

"I don't like Bush," said Lee Bondurant, a political independent who was laid off from his job at Boeing in 2002 and now teaches computer-aided drafting to college students. "Because he ain't got no smarts. Just listen to the way he speaks. He's damaging our country's image in the world. I think he was put in office by his father."

"Bush lied about Iraq," offered Jean Bondurant, a high school teacher and Democrat. "And I hate the No Child Left Behind program. It unfairly penalizes schools that have less financial resources, and it's dangerous to education.

"I feel personally affected by the president's policies in more ways than one. The tax cuts are cutting services people need, like welfare and health care and education."

Who benefits from the tax cuts? "My sister," Lee Bondurant said. "She's extremely wealthy. She's a hard-core Republican who still thinks Agnew was innocent."


(Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's first vice president, resigned in 1973 after a Justice Department investigation found evidence of corruption during his years in Maryland politics. Agnew later pleaded no contest to a charge of federal income tax evasion.)

For the opposing view, listen to Alabama state Republican Chairman Marty Connors:

"I think the average voter is beginning to sense that there is a cultural conflict going on in the country. It goes back to taking prayer out of school, and the federal judiciary getting increasingly proactive, perhaps overstepping its bounds. The 9th Circuit in San Francisco saying we've got to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance. The American Civil Liberties Union attacking cities for having a cross on official emblems and shields.

"I'm a 47-year-old guy with a 13-year-old daughter, I'm not some reactionary, but I never thought the day would come when the president of the United States would be forced to define what a marriage is. ...

"I think the left really dislikes George Bush, and I think on our side we like him. So the end result is, 'Hey, you're picking on my brother here -- back off or I'll punch you in the nose.' It's real."

To pollster Zogby, Fahrenheit 9/11, the anti-Bush film by Michael Moore, has fed the frenzy.


"The smugness of the audience in the theaters was breathtaking when I went to see it," he said. "The lack of appreciation for the other side. It's been a long time since hostility has been as deep as it is. It's a fever pitch, and it's bad for the country."

Ed Grefe, a Republican specialist in grass-roots mobilization who teaches at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, also sees an angry battle over values. "Pro-Bush forces accuse the president's political critics of an anti-patriotic attitude. Democrats believe we have been lied to as a nation," he said.

In this heated atmosphere, civility has no chance. "I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said, 'Bush Is Creating Enemies Faster Than We Can Kill Them,'" Grefe said.