Inside red-and-blue America
Part one of five: A look at America's polarized electorate
(Page 4 of 4)
Taken together, these layers of differences are fostering a partisan divide that increasingly seems to be about identity. Voters are aligning with the party they feel best projects the values they want to pass on to their children. Moreover, each side seems to feel their identity is under threat, a perception the campaigns are subtly encouraging. Kerry's slogan, "Let America be America Again," evokes a sense of lost national greatness, while Bush's "Steady Leadership in a Time of Change" reinforces the image of a president guarding the nation against dangerous and corrosive forces.Skip to next paragraph
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This dimension has generated a tribal, us-versus-them attitude that colors everything else, with partisan loyalties often shaping people's views on issues rather than the other way around. Some analysts wonder, for example, what the split on Iraq would look like if Clinton, rather than Bush, had led the country to war.
It has also engendered an overall "lack of respect," says Professor White, by bringing debates about issues and ideas down to a personal level. "Both sides of the divide believe the other side disses" their values and their way of life.
Still, the resurgence of partisanship isn't necessarily a bad thing for democracy. For one thing, more people tend to vote when they see real differences between the parties - and feel a personal stake in the outcome of an election.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, public interest in this election is much higher than at a similar point four year ago: 58 percent of voters say they are giving "quite a lot" of thought to the election, versus 46 percent in 2000. And 63 percent say it "really matters" who wins, versus 45 percent in 2000.
During the 1960s and '70s, by contrast, political analysts worried that partisanship was in a dangerous decline. In 1968, George Wallace famously charged there wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties - and many voters seemed to agree with him, as rates of participation steadily dropped.
Yet the current partisan divide also means the losing side is likelier to feel upset and angry. And it creates real challenges for the winning side when it comes to governing.
Many analysts also worry that polarization has a self-perpetuating quality to it. "As the electorate becomes more polarized, [so do leaders], and each part of that reinforces the other," says Abramowitz. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Abramowitz.]
In the past, it has often taken an intervening event to bridge such a stalemate. The close partisan division at the beginning of the 20th century ended with the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, which gave Democrats an advantage for decades thereafter. Demographic changes might eventually break the deadlock, giving one party or the other a natural advantage. Or the parties may shift, as they fight over the allegiance of certain groups.
Because of the limits of the two-party system, strategists say both parties inevitably include members with conflicting ideologies, who could be lured to the other side..
A strong third-party candidate could also break the divide by peeling off support from one or both sides.
The current campaign could polarize the nation even further. Yet as a referendum on the incumbent, analysts say the election may not wind up as close as it appears, and could even prove a turning point that swings the advantage to one side or the other - for a time.
"You can always point to some rule or dynamic in American politics that people think is enduring," Klinkner says, "until it's not."