When voters in Iowa seemed to forgive candidate Ben Carson for improprieties made in his youth, candidate Donald Trump had a meltdown. “How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?” he demanded.
To which a frighteningly prescient Mark Strawn, former chair of the Iowa Republican Party explained, “He doesn’t need all Iowans to agree with his comment. He just needs one-quarter of a subset of Iowa Republicans to agree with him.”
While it’s easy to think of Donald Trump as the most vulgar, most disruptive, most disrespectful and most proudly ignorant president ever — and all of these things are true — we’ve seen elements of this egotism and arrogance before, just never in that shade of orange. What is new is the unwavering polarization among voters in the United States. You can be pro-Trump or anti-Trump and there’s no middle ground. It’s kind of like the way football fans perceived the world in the 1980s: The Dallas Cowboys are America’s Team or they’re not. The Beatles are the greatest band of all time or they’re not.
Trump’s overall approval rating hovers around a historic low of 40 percent. But his base — that one-quarter of a subset that Strawn referred to — hasn’t wavered. In last month’s Washington Post-ABC News poll, approval among folks who voted for him is still 94 percent. Asked if they regret their vote, 96 percent of Trump voters said they would do it again. That’s assuming another face-off between Trump and Hillary Clinton, however, and the poll didn’t ask if Trump voters would prefer another choice.
The Pew Research Center has theories, some of which are intuitive. Kind of like Trump’s new tax plan — a billionaire will naturally spin it in the favor of the wealthy. First, the number of people who describe themselves as liberal has doubled in the last 20 years. At the same time, partisan animosity has risen. Voters aren’t just conservatives, Pew’s report suggests, they are damn-right white evangelical Christian conservatives. And both parties claim the other party is taking the nation to hell in a handbasket.
And why should damn-right white evangelical Christian conservatives change their minds? Trump to date has played to this loyal base, bigly. He decided to stay in NAFTA because the newly minted secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, took visual aids to the president showing him how farmers would be hurt. And an overlay of Trump’s political base. He backed off repealing the Affordable Care Act after aides told him how losing health insurance would disproportionately hurt people who voted for him.
And the gun lobby, which spent early and often, is expecting its due, and no doubt he will deliver again. “You came through for me, and I will come through for you,” Trump promised the National Rifle Association meeting last Friday. Sharpening his bugle, he asserted “(gun ownership), is not a gift from government, it is a gift from God.”
The self-defeating result is that many voters today choose their friends and embrace/estrange their relatives by political ideology. They’re preaching to the choir, and preach they do: Extremists in both parties tend to vote and donate more. The result is very little compromise. Liberals, for example, would be a lot happier with Trump if he thought, acted, spoke and governed more like Barack Obama. Can I get an amen?
There’s no doubt voter polarization has paralyzed government at state and federal levels. Some blame Congress, which incidentally has a historically low disapproval rating of 69 percent itself, according to another Pew poll in 2016. Congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years after the national census, but Republican gerrymandering has so out-wonked the system that it is boiling over. Since becoming a freelancer, Mr. Obama has said working to correct gerrymandering bias is one of his priorities.
“The Founders never imagined that partisan gerrymandering would render the House of Representatives so polarized that most lawmakers now fear a primary challenge from the right or left more than they fear losing to the other party in a general election. We need non-partisan redistricting commissions to redraw the lines and make House members more accountable to people other than the extremes of each party,” a panel of experts concluded in The Atlantic last year.
Another flaw in the system is said to be the political parties themselves. Open Primaries, a public service group, has argued more states need to replicate the model in California, which went to a top-two primary system in 2012, and Nebraska, which has had a non-partisan state Legislature since 1936. About 45 percent of voters describe themselves as Independent, the highest rate since political polling began (though they usually lean toward one side). Arizona and South Dakota are toying with the idea.
In the end it all boils down to money. A lot of partisan polarization is blamed on money, and most recently, the 2010 Supreme Court decision for Citizens United, which allows big-money individuals and corporations to pour dark money in campaigns. Democratic House and Senate members have introduced a number of bills in 2017 in their respective bodies to ban corporations from donating to campaigns through a constitutional amendment. No vote tests so far.
It’s a big problem, but at least we know where to start.