The Great Divide

    In the last 20 years, America’s political climate has hit a sweltering fever pitch. Political polarization is at an all-time high — and political-science professor and researcher Gary Jacobson has the polls to prove it.

    According to Jacobson, who has been conducting research on political polarization over the past 40 years, partisan politics are dictating elections and political decisions as moderate politicians are being forced to pick sides. Even if those partisan politics have recently begun to refuse compromise on progressive issues.

    “I think Republican politicians have made a considered choice that their best choice in the long run is to just say ‘No’ [to progressive reforms] — to not respond — because their core supporters are not at all interested in support for [President Barack] Obama,” Jacobson said.

    Relying on data from commercial, academic and media polls gathered over the past decade, Jacobson synthesizes statistics to map out the Bush era in a broad historical context of pivotal events.

    In response to pressure from ideologues, activists and fellow politicians, he argued, moderate Republicans and Democrats are gravitating to the most outspoken of their constituency. Six months after Obama’s inauguration, the difference in approval ratings between self-identified Democratic and Republican voters (as measured by media polls) returned to similar levels of polarity as during President Bush’s tenure. As apparent in Obama’s current approval ratings, Congress is still heavily divided — and the gap only continues to widen.

    Sitting at a desk overcrowded with poll data and yellow notepads, peering from behind gold-framed tortoiseshell glasses, Jacobson described his research with the subtle piquancy of a Congressional insider.

    “In the last four years of the Bush administration … Bush’s approval among Democrats was in the single digits,” Jacobson said. “That’s really low — nobody ever gets into the single digits.”

    Rather than advocating for more moderate economic policies — a tactic many political hopefuls have employed — party polarization has led representatives to seek backing from their most solid base of support: liberal progressives and conservative fundamentalists.

    According to Revelle College junior Alec Weisman, editor in chief of the California Review — UCSD’s one politically conservative newspaper — a rise in bipartisanship is unlikely if Obama continues pursuing an agenda with which Republicans aren’t interested in associating.

    “I think if he had actually wanted to push bipartisanship, he should have stuck to the issues that were bipartisan,” Weisman said.

    After the economic collapse in 2007, presidential contender John McCain’s popularity fell in the polls, according to Weisman. And even with the momentum of his win — Obama still hit a speed bump when he began pushing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. According to Jacobson’s poll data, Obama’s stimulus package was the first measure to dash any hope for a shift toward bipartisanship (in either the Senate or House of Representatives) over the next two years. Shortly after introducing the bill, the president’s approval ratings among Republicans began to suffer.

    One key difference from previous years, however, was that political protestors were focusing more on economic issues than social ones.

    According to Weisman, the conservative party is going back to its roots. He said that many fiscal conservatives were disenchanted with then-President George W. Bush after he crafted his 2008 stimulus bill; as a result, they’ve begun to support more hard-line candidates. And, considering summer rallies, he predicts a new wave of conservative activism could be upon us.

    “I think the right is starting to stand up,” Weisman said.

    This past summer, as activists known as Tea Party Patriots marched through DC and the Senate Judiciary Committee vetted then-Supreme Court nominee Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Jacobson was updating his 2006 book A Divider, Not a Uniter: George W. Bush and the American People. Based on new polls from the final three year’s of Bush’s presidency, Jacobson analyzed the evolution of Bush’s partisan upshot.

    “We thought [political polarization] had peaked with [former President Bill Clinton’s] impeachment, which was an incredibly partisan division that [Congress] had to vote on,” Jacobson said. “But we thought it was over, and then Bush gets elected through Florida.”

    Though Clinton’s impeachment trial was a pivotal benchmark for political polarization in the U.S., Jacobson’s 2006 book explains that the concept isn’t by any means a recent phenomenon.

    According to Jacobson, political polarization has swelled from social issues since the 1960s — most specifically, after the Goldwater campaign in ’64.

    Jacobson has charted correlations between party identification and positions on icy issues. Based on voter surveys, since 1972, the steepest increases in polarization have been over more touchy social issues such as welfare, affirmative action and abortion.

    According to Jacobson, 25 years ago, one’s opinions about abortion were unrelated to his or her identification as a Republican. In fact, he said, Republicans tended to be more pro-choice. Yet by 2004, 63 percent of self-identified Republicans thought abortion should be illegal under all circumstances — compared to only 34 percent of Democrats.

    Keith Poole, another political-science professor at UCSD, has conducted similar research on political polarization. By analyzing roll-call vote patterns — the recorded “Yea” or “Nay” votes on proposed legislation used by Congress — Poole, along with two other researchers, has found that the gap between congressional parties has been expanding.

    In placing the roll-call vote from each member of Congress on a liberal-to-conservative spectrum, Poole and his collaborators concluded that Republicans are increasingly more conservative as Democrats more liberal.

    Of course, there are also other popular explanations for these partisan divisions that Jacobson said he’s taken into account — one being increasingly biased news sources.

    “There’s definitely been heightened polarization, especially with the 24/7 news cable coverage that’s going on nonstop,” Marshall College junior and President of the College Democrats at UCSD Victor Lin said. “You have all the talking heads going on every hour of every day.”

    Debate over the Obama administration’s recent tussle with the Fox News network mirrors a similar dilemma at UCSD. Though the California Review boasts many moderate members, its articles don’t always reflect the opinions of the moderately conservative.

    “When you look at the California Review and you look at the rest of the on-campus environment, there needs to be someone to put out a more conservative position because there are currently two liberal newspapers and then there’s the Guardian — which, in a lot of cases, does veer left,” Weisman said.

    (Weisman added that a wider breadth of views is available to read on the student organization’s blog,

    Though much of Jacobson’s research has indicated that political polarization is on the rise, many politically active students — on the right and left — are bridging the gap with open dialogue.

    Lin admitted that if there is any difference between the national Democratic Party and the College Democrats at UCSD, it’s probably that the students lean more to left.

    At a recent debate between the College Democrats at UCSD and College Republicans over same-sex marriage, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the stimulus bill, Lin said he was surprised that many young conservatives were willing to admit that some traditional conservative positions are flawed.

    “When it came to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ most of [the Republicans] were supportive of repealing that,” Lin said.

    According to Weisman, most moderates are politically apathetic. But he said he still believes that compromise is key if we want to escape the cycle of presidential referendums.

    “Polarization is completely an elite phenomenon: [It] is among the activists and pundits and the politicians — whereas the rest of the population is not divided in the same way,” said Jacobson. “And there’s some truth to that. The people who are the least divided are the people who are the least involved in politics — the least knowledgeable about politics.”

    Readers can contact Edwin Gonzalez at [email protected].

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