Party opinion usurps public opinion
We are witnessing the slow death of public opinion in this country. It’s being displaced by party opinion.
These days, more and more Americans are inclined to judge issues from a partisan viewpoint. In March, according to a Pew Research Center survey, twice as many Republicans (53 percent) as Democrats (27 percent) said the economy was poor. Yet, from everything we know, Republicans are not suffering more economic deprivation than Democrats.
Elections today are less and less about persuasion and more and more about mobilization: You rally your supporters in order to beat back your opponents. Republicans did that in 2004, when President George W. Bush got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. Democrats did that in 2012, when President Barack Obama got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote.
Republicans today are all fired up over the controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department and the Justice Department. They see Watergate.
Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), for example, said the abuses confirm “our worst fears about our government,” namely, “that your government’s targeting you, your government’s spying on you and that your government’s lying to you.”
In a CNN poll last weekend, 62 percent of Republicans said they believe the White House ordered the IRS to target conservative groups. Only 19 percent of Democrats believe that. Three-quarters of Republicans believe the Obama administration “intentionally misled” the public about the attack last September on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. Only one in five Democrats endorses that view.
“This town is turning on Obama,” a lead story in last week’s Politico declared. Maybe so, but the country is not. Gallup and CNN polls taken at the end of last week show no decline in Obama’s job approval rating. Both moved up slightly – to 53 percent from 51 percent in the CNN poll and to 50 percent from 49 percent in the Gallup poll.
An odd thing about this president’s job ratings. They seldom move much higher or lower than 50 percent. Which suggests that a lot of Americans have fixed opinions of Obama. They love him or hate him. Those views may intensify, but they rarely change. The president’s support and opposition seem locked in.
It used to be that when a president got in trouble, he got in trouble with all Americans. Public opinion turned against him. He even lost support in his own party. For example:
- When President Lyndon B. Johnson was deeply unpopular in August 1968 – at the time of the bloody Chicago Democratic National Convention – he was drawing only 48 percent approval from Democrats and 21 percent from Republicans, a 27-point difference.
- Just before President Richard M. Nixon resigned in August 1974, he was drawing 13 percent support from Democrats and 50 percent from his fellow Republicans, a 37-point gap.
- During the “malaise” crisis of 1979, President Jimmy Carter was getting only 41 percent support from his fellow Democrats and 19 percent from Republicans, a 22-point difference.
Things began to change with President Ronald Reagan.
- When the Iran-contra scandal broke in 1986, Reagan was at 24 percent approval among Democrats. But Republicans stood by him, at 74 percent. The partisan gap had grown to 50 points.
- When President Bill Clinton was at a low point in 1994, only 14 percent of Republicans approved of the way he was handling his job. But 75 percent of Democrats supported him. The difference was 61 points.
- Just before Bush left office during the 2008 financial crash, his rating from Democrats was exactly 5 percent. But he kept 61 percent of his fellow Republicans – a 56-point difference.
Polarization has taken another huge leap under Obama. In last weekend’s CNN poll, Obama was getting 87 percent support from Democrats and 15 percent from Republicans – an unprecedented 72-point division.
Right now, Senate Democrats are preparing to launch “the nuclear option” to break the partisan gridlock in Congress. This would change Senate rules to allow presidential nominations be confirmed by majority vote. A radical concept ‑ majority rule! Democrats are enraged because Republicans are using the filibuster to block Obama’s nominations for Cabinet positions and federal judgeships.
In recent years, we’ve seen one issue where public opinion has changed dramatically: same-sex marriage. In 2004, the issue was so poisonous that it went down to defeat in elections across in 11 states and doomed John Kerry’s presidential campaign. But public opinion has moved with breathtaking speed, and it has happened across the board. Politicians like Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton have hardly led public opinion on same-sex marriage. Rather, they have been forced to catch up with it.
The change happened because of personal experiences. More Americans say they know someone who is openly gay. In the CBS News poll, 77 percent of Americans said they knew someone openly gay in 2010, up from 42 percent in 1992.
Call it the Dick Cheney effect: the impact of personal experience. (Cheney’s daughter is lesbian.) Personal experience – not persuasion – may be the only way to move public opinion in this intensely polarized environment.
Gilbert and Sullivan satirized this problem in their comic operetta Iolanthe (1882):
I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
That’s what happens in a world without public opinion. Politics becomes social identity.
PHOTO (Top):Audience member, wearing a National Rifle Association (NRA) cap, waits at a GOP campaign rally for presidential nominee Mitt Romney and vice presidential nominee Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in Fishersville, Virginia, October 4, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
PHOTO (Insert): Members if the Michigan Tea Party group “RetakeOurGov” at a Tea Party gathering in Dewitt, Michigan, November 12, 2011. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook