by Ruy Teixeira
It is commonplace to call attention to the polarized nature of partisan views on Bush’s administration and policies. Republicans approve; Democrats don’t and the gulfs between them are immense by historical standards.
The latest CBS New poll confirms this yawning gulf between Democrats and Republicans. But it shows something else that is actually far more significant: the views of political independents are now almost as far away from Republicans as Democrats are. In fact, the two groups-independents and Democrats-have converged so strongly in their political views that we could almost lump them together as one group, “Indycrats”, whose views are starkly different from those of GOP identifiers.
Consider these data from the CBS News poll:
1. Bush’s overall approval rating is 79 percent among Republicans and 14 percent among Democrats-a gap of 65 points. But his rating is also just 29 percent among independents, producing a very sizable gap of 50 points relative to GOP identifiers. Put another way, independents are 50 points away from Republicans, but just 15 points away from Democrats.
2. Only 20 percent of independents believe the country is going in the right direction, a mere 12 points more than the comparable figure among Democrats-but 37 points less than the figure among Republicans.
3. Twenty-six percent of independents approve of Bush’s handling of the economy (66 percent disapprove), 14 points more than the number of Democrats who approve-but 44 points less than the number among Republicans.
4. Twenty-six percent of independents approve of Bush’s handling of the Iraq situation-15 points more than Democrats; 43 points less than Republicans.
5. On handling the campaign against terrorism, 38 percent of independents approve of the job Bush is doing. That’s 11 points more than Democrats, but 45 points less than Republicans.
6. How about whether Bush has “the same priorities for country as you have”? Sixty-nine percent of Republicans agree, but just 11 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of independents.
7. Was removing Saddam Hussein from power worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq? Only 30 percent of independents and 15 percent of Democrats say yes, compared to 70 percent among Republicans.
8. And what should the US do now? Just 24 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of independents believe we should “stay in Iraq as long as it takes to make sure Iraq is a stable democracy” (the administration position), compared to 61 percent of Republicans.
You get the idea. Independents and Democrats-“Indycrats”-see eye to eye on the policies and priorities of the Bush administration-which they find very wanting indeed–while Republicans are off seemingly on a different planet.
This helps clarify an important aspect of today’s political polarization. It’s not that there are two roughly equal groups in the public that are at loggerheads with one another. Or that the Democrats and Republicans are light years from one another, while the political center stands in a crossfire, equidistant from both extremes. Instead, what we have is one large group, Indycrats (two-thirds of the public), on one side and a much smaller group, Republicans (one-third of the public), on the other.
That’s polarization, all right, but polarization that pits a big center-left majority against a small right wing minority (inverting the claims of many after the 2004 election that the US had become a center-right nation). And it’s polarization that raises a vexing question: why can’t this big majority-the Indycrats-get more of what they want? Why do the policies and priorities of the country seem skewed toward the minority, not the majority?
That’s a huge question and certainly part of the answer lies in GOP manipulation of cultural issues and the war on terror to promote their narrow agenda. But that’s by all means not the whole story of how the public and public policy got so divorced from one another. The other part of the story is about a GOP leadership increasingly responsive to its own base and increasingly clever about circumventing the popular will to promote that base’s agenda. For that story, I refer you to the important new book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.
In the meantime, we shall see how long the Bush administration is able to keep the Indycrats at bay. Given the way the Bush administration is currently unraveling, even all the clever tricks described in Hacker’s and Pierson’s book may not be enough to save them this time.
by Ruy Teixeira