The partisan divide in the United States may be past the point of no return. It could well be a symptom of greater changes in the American polity that herald the advent of potentially revolutionary change.
On Monday, the Pew Research Center issued its annual report on American values, which revealed that the partisan divide is the greatest fissure in American society, eclipsing other points of division such as race, education and sex. “Men and women, whites, blacks and Hispanics, the highly religious and the less religious, and those with more and less education differ in many respects,” the report notes. “However, these differences have not grown in recent years, and for the most part pale in comparison to the overwhelming partisan divide we see today.”
This partisan divide is a recent phenomenon of the Bush-Obama years. A 2011 Gallup poll reported the percentage of self-identified Republican conservatives and Democratic liberals is increasing while moderates in both parties are declining. Research by Keith T. Poole of the University of California shows the partisan divide in Congress has accelerated in recent years and is worse than at any time since the end of the Civil War. A February Gallup report identifies Barack Obama as the most divisive president in 60 years of polling and George W. Bush as the second-most-devisive. Eight of the top 10 “most divided” years regarding the presidency occurred in an unbroken line from 2004 to the present.
These numbers show the partisan divide isn’t confined to the halls of Congress. They imply that the breakdown in cooperation in Washington is a symptom and expression of a widespread social phenomenon. Increasing numbers of Americans simply do not get along politically and would rather fight than compromise.
Greater changes may be coming. In a provocative essay in the June issue of the New Criterion, James Piereson of the William E. Simon Foundation suggests America may be “on the verge of a new upheaval, a ‘fourth revolution’ that will reshape U.S. politics for decades to come.” The previous three upheavals - the War for Independence; the Civil War; and the changes that attended the Great Depression, New Deal and World War II - were inflection points in American history after which the country began moving in a new direction. Those fundamental changes take place every 70 to 80 years. The sudden and growing divisions in the country may be precursors to another tectonic shift. “We may already be in the early stages of this 21st-century revolution,” Mr. Piereson writes.
There is opportunity in transformative periods. The political values that took root in the 1930s - such as using government to address all national problems - could be swept away in favor of less expensive, decentralized bureaucracy and greater personal freedom. If so, the Obama years will be remembered as the last hurrah of runaway liberalism before the return to fundamental American values.
James S. Robbins is senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times and author of the forthcoming, “Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity” (Encounter, August 2012).