How did we get into a situation where one of the presidential candidates appears to be writing off half the electorate?
Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hetherington have produced three charts that may have the answer. I've posted some of these before, but it's worth putting them together again.
The first chart shows that the major parties' voting records haven't been this far apart since the Civil War.
Low numbers indicate that the two parties basically voted the same; high numbers, that they were deeply divided. (The colors don't stand for the parties, but for the different houses of Congress.) The data includes voting on all issues, not just the traditional hot buttons of entitlements and the size of government.
The second chart shows that party rank and file share the same negative feelings towards the other side as elected officials.
Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans have always had warmer feelings for their own party than for the other. But hostility toward the other party has accelerated in recent years.
So far, both charts tell a similar story for both parties. But the third graph shows us why Haidt and Hetherington believe "it’s the Republicans who now seem to be more radicalized, energized and opposed to compromise."
This chart measures how much the members of each party say they “trust the government in Washington to do what’s right,” with the possible answers being “just about always,” “most of the time,” or “only some of the time.”
The long-term trend has been down for years. But Republicans are more sensitive to who controls the White House. When their man is in, they trust government more than Democrats do. When their man is out, they trust it less.
Most important for our current predicament, according to Haidt and Hetherington, "Republicans showed an unprecedented plunge in trust when Obama took office. They were at a 40-year-high water mark under George W. Bush, and then cascaded to a 50-year-low point — an astonishing 5% — under Barack Obama. And it’s not just Tea Partiers, it’s nearly all Republicans who distrust government today."
It's not exactly a leap from distrust of government to disdain for those who, in Mitt Romney's words, "are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."
By the way, Haidt and Hetherington don't think political polarization is hopeless. They think generational change will bring improvements. They also cite a number of political reforms that could make it easier to attract centrists to both parties. And perhaps in a moment of desperation, they offer the hope that the coming "fiscal cliff" will shock both parties into finally working together.
I hope they're right. But resolving the deep resentment that seems to be the root cause of this polarization will take a lot longer.
The whole article is worth reading. You can access it here.