How polarized are we?
It's common enough to say our political system is polarized. But is our world polarized, too? I've been reading Farhad Manjoo's “True Enough,” and early in the book, he references an interesting Pew study suggesting that political polarization is leaking into non-political spheres -- and, perhaps more to the point, that this is a new phenomenon.
The Pew survey in question was taken in 2006, shortly before President Bush's State of the Union. It tested, among other things, voter perceptions of the economy. And what it found doesn't sound very surprising, but perhaps it should: "Public views of the economy are deeply split along political lines. Republicans generally see an economy that is thriving; 56% judge it as excellent or good. Democrats and independents see it much more negatively; just 28% of independents and 23% of Democrats say the economy is doing well."
You could assume that this reflects differences in the two groups. Republicans, after all, are somewhat richer than Democrats. But Pew looked at that, too. "Even among those with household incomes of at least $75,000, more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats express a positive view of the economy (65% vs. 31%)."
"Think about this for a minute," wrote Manjoo. "Here were people living in the same economy as one another, folks with a roughly equal likelihood of finding a job or seeing wealth in the housing market or hitting on hard times. They were swimming in the same pool -- but half of them thought the water was lovely, while the other half were dying of chill."
What caught my eye, however, is that it wasn't always thus. "During Clinton's first term, positive views of the economy rose gradually, and at about the same rate, among both Democrats and Republicans," Pew notes. So something actually changed.
The optimistic spin, I guess, is that mediocre economies are more susceptible to polarized views than really good or really bad economies. The Clinton boom was great. The current economy is terrible. You don't have to be glued to CNBC to know either fact. Conversely, the economy in 2005 and 2006 was, well, okay. Not great, but not horrible. Perhaps lacking any strong opinions on it, Americans just defaulted to their feelings about the political leadership.
The more pessimistic spin is that the rise of cable news and the Internet have made it much easier to cocoon yourself in information that takes your political biases as starting ideals and builds your understanding of the world to match them, and that this has actually changed how Americans understand the world. You're perhaps seeing it in the business community's view of the president, which is far more negative and hysterical than one might expect, given that he presided over multiple bailouts, huge tax cuts, industry-friendly reforms to both the health-care and financial sectors and more than $30 billion in lending help to small firms, and is currently pushing more tax breaks for business investment and R&D. Business leaders are the most conservative segment of the population, and also quite high-information, so they'd be a likely place for these distortions.
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