State of a changed union: Bush's five years
The nation is more polarized, but observers also see signs of budding civic engagement.
Ray Graham of Parkville, Ala., knows whom to blame for this year's disappointing deer season: President Bush.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
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.
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.