You say "polarizing" like it's a bad thing

Conservatives cite new poll to show that Obama isn't acting in a bipartisan fashion, but that's not what the results really mean.

Published April 6, 2009 8:00PM (EDT)

Barack Obama is a hard-left partisan. Haven’t you heard? It’s mathematically proven!

That’s how some on the right are reading a new poll from Pew, which puts the gap between Democratic approval of the president and Republican disapproval at its widest ever. Matt Drudge is running the story under the headline, "President Polarize." (Hat-tip to the Washington Post's Greg Sargent.) Commentary’s Peter Wehner writes, “Barack Obama made bipartisanship and healing the political divide that existed among us a core commitment of his presidency. We’re now about 10 weeks or so into the Age of Obama -- and the country is more divided than it has been in modern times.”

In the most literal sense, Wehner is correct. But he's implying that it's Obama's fault that the country disagrees about his performance, that these numbers show he hasn't been as bipartisan as promised. And that's not true. This is, instead, part of a long-term trend towards increased polarization in U.S. politics.

The high level of polarization, says Pew official Michael Dimock, is caused mainly by “the way Democrats are reacting to Obama.” In short, it's the high level of support for the president from members of his own party that explains these numbers.  Republican approval of the president is at the same level as Democratic approval for George W. Bush at the same point in his term, and lower than the equivalent Republican approval of Bill Clinton.

Nor, it’s worth pointing out, is polarization necessarily a bad thing, though the term has taken on a distinctly negative connotation in recent years, thanks to abuse like Wehner’s. In the bad old days, people we would today identify as arch-conservatives populated Democratic as well as Republican ranks, and the GOP was full of politicans and voters alike who would today be drummed out of the party as heretic liberals. The decades-long pattern of heightening polarization is the result of a sorting-out process, in which greater percentages of conservatives became Republicans, and liberals became Democrats. Consequently -- unlike in, say, 1960 -- today, when you vote for the Democrats, you know you’re definitely voting for more liberal policies. And when you vote for the GOP, you can be sure that you're supporting a more conservative agenda. What you see is what you get.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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