State of a changed union: Bush's five years

The nation is more polarized, but observers also see signs of budding civic engagement.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ray Graham of Parkville, Ala., knows whom to blame for this year's disappointing deer season: President Bush.

"Since he has been blamed for the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, all the thousands Saddam murdered, and anything else the Democrats can think of, I might as well join the crowd," he writes in a Jan. 23 letter to the Montgomery Advertiser.

Mr. Graham's tongue is planted firmly in cheek, but his point is serious: politicization has permeated life to an unprecedented degree, from the entertainment and news Americans consume to what they tell pollsters about the economy.

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In its annual January poll gauging public priorities, the Pew Research Center highlighted the yawning gap between how Republicans and Democrats view the economy under Bush - currently, 33 percentage points but as high as 44 points in February 2004. Even under President Clinton, a polarizing figure in his own right, views on the economy were roughly the same across party lines.

The five years of George W. Bush's presidency have been a time of tumult - the 9/11 attacks, the Afghan and Iraq wars, massive natural disasters, gas and oil shocks - some of his own doing and some a result of outside forces. Americans have grown more isolationist and concerned about immigration. Five years ago, there was no gay marriage or iPods or "American Idol." But of all the changes over which President Bush has presided, the biggest is probably the "hopelessly polarized country we live in today," says independent pollster John Zogby.

Next, he says, comes the degree to which the nation hasn't changed. "Though Americans expect the next terror attack and nothing is left to the imagination, it's amazing the degree to which we carry on with our lives."

Elements of the "9/11 effect" - the sense of national unity, including near universal support for Bush, willingness to put civil liberties aside in the name of security, trust in government and the media - lasted maybe five or six months. By the middle of 2002, pollsters reported that America was "back to normal" when various social indicators had fallen to pre-9/11 levels, such as trust along racial lines and the numbers of people who said they were troubled by government eavesdropping and reading of e-mail. Scandals involving Enron Corporation and the Catholic Church brought back old suspicions toward large institutions.

The partisan gap

Over a longer period of time, the growing partisan gap in Bush's job approval that marked the start of his presidency - spurred by his controversial election and conservative agenda - and disappeared after 9/11, came back. The US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, followed by a protracted and costly occupation, sealed the return of intense polarization. By October 2004, on the eve of Bush's reelection, 94 percent of Republicans approved of the president's job performance, while just 11 percent of Democrats did. That 83-point difference smashed all modern records (The highest previous record was held by President Reagan, whose Gallup numbers showed a 70-point gap twice, according to Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego.)

It's enough to make one wonder if a sort of "polarization fatigue" might set in with the public. In fact, say pollsters, polarization is a big-picture phenomenon that "normal people" don't pay much attention to. To some observers, the entire phenomenon is misunderstood: It's politics that are polarized, not the American people. They point to polling on even the toughest social issues that shows that most Americans are, in fact, pragmatists. The political parties and the media have painted a distorted picture of a nation riven by extremes - a tendency that's fed by the extreme partisans who often emerge from primaries, denying the general electorate the centrist choices they would prefer, says Morris Fiorina, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

"Voters can only choose between the alternatives they're offered, and so if they're offered more extreme alternatives, you'll see more extreme choices," says Professor Fiorina, author of the book "Culture War: The Myth of a Polarized America."

Given different alternatives for president - such as, say, John McCain of Arizona, a Republican senator with a maverick streak, and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a centrist Democrat - voters might not be so polarized, Fiorina says.

Fiorina also notes that the parties themselves have become more homogeneous, which affects the polls. "A generation ago there were lots of conservatives in the Democratic Party and lots of liberals in the Republican Party," he says. "There are fewer now. People have found their ideological homes."

No matter how one views the polls, what is certain is that "there's a good deal of discontent with how much bickering goes on in Washington," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center in Washington.

And he sees little hope of improvement anytime soon: "I don't think Republicans are willing to say, 'Well, Bush is wrong,' or Democrats are willing to say, "Well, maybe we were wrong about him."

For Bush, the strategy of playing to his political base and giving little quarter to Democrats won him reelection and continuing Republican majorities in Congress. For Democrats, recent White House suggestions that the president is reaching out more to them produces derisive laughter.

If there is a genuine desire to bring the country together over policy issues, says Mr. Kohut, the more productive avenue would come via the rise of a third party or strong, independent political figure. But "that only happens in presidential [election] times," he says. "We're a good deal ahead of that discussion."

Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," the 2000 book that documented a generation-long decline of social connectedness in America, sees something of a silver lining from 9/11: signs of an upturn in civic engagement among young adults.

A variety of surveys show that Americans who were between the ages of 18 and 25 on Sept. 11, 2001, are increasingly discussing politics, voting, and volunteering. Professor Putnam says that for this age group in particular, 9/11 took place at an impressionable time in their lives, just as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 instantly ended America's inter-war isolationism and inspired that era's 18-to-25-year-olds to serve a national cause. Thus was born the so-called Greatest Generation.

Says Putnam, director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, at Harvard University: "9/11 was an incredibly vivid moment of Irish firemen and Jewish bankers and undocumented Salvadoran waiters and so on, all in this together. It was the kind of moment for potential national renewal that comes along to a country once or twice a century."

Budding civic engagement

In retrospect, he says, the moment was lost - almost. When he looks at data from UCLA's annual nationwide survey of college freshmen and the University of Michigan's annual survey of high school seniors, he sees a common thread: since 9/11, growing interest in public affairs.

"We'll have to wait some years to see if this budding civic engagement blossoms, but it could prove to be the largest civic shift in the past half-century," Putnam concluded in a column he co-authored last September.

Pollster Zogby has also tapped into some burgeoning social trends among Americans. First, there's what he calls "the rise of the global citizen." Among today's 18-to-25-year-olds, he is seeing more interest in global music, and a more multilateral view of the US's place in the world. This age cohort, along with the oldest Americans, is the most antiwar.

Zogby is also seeing the beginnings of a redefinition of the American dream, away from material things to the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. Some of the "gross spending habits of the past seem to be subsiding - some out of sheer necessity, some out of a sense of, 'What does this get me in the end, anyway?" he says.

Bush's bold direction

Regardless of political outlook, observers of Bush agree on one point: Well before 9/11, the president clearly planned to take the country in a bold new direction. He pulled away from international treaties, pursued major tax cuts and a more market-based approach to environmental regulation, and, in defiance of traditional Republican orthodoxy, sought to put a strong federal stamp on education.

The 9/11 attacks emboldened Bush further still. Not only did he launch wars in two countries, he also persisted in cutting taxes, a first for wartime. The war on terror has also paved the way for a rigorous assertion of executive-branch power. In his admiring new book, "Rebel-in-Chief: How George W. Bush Is Redefining the Conservative Movement and Transforming America" conservative commentator Fred Barnes writes that the label "big-government conservative" does not suffice.

"In truth, his view of government is Hamiltonian: it's a valuable tool to achieve security, prosperity, and the common good," Mr. Barnes writes, noting that, like other bold, controversial presidents, such as Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, Bush is indeed polarizing.

To some liberal observers, whether Bush wants the nation polarized is beside the point; what matters is whether it helps him achieve his goals. "It's a means to an end," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He likens Bush's approach to that of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who promoted "positive polarization" during the Vietnam War to boost support and isolate opponents.

In the end, Bush supporters are getting more than they bargained for in 2000, Professor Gitlin says. "His voters wanted a 'reformer with results.' They weren't up for a big 90 degree bend in American history."

But that appears to be what the nation is getting.

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