- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Those who study public opinion and gauge America’s mood worry that something is terribly wrong in this country. Right track/wrong track numbers decline each month, congressional popularity — of both parties — hovers near 10-year lows, and the president’s approval bumps along at a five-year bottom.

Relying more on seasoned instinct than survey data, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan thinks America is in trouble, too. She writes in an op-ed, “A Separate Peace,” “that a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even in some cases unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks. That in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can’t be fixed, or won’t be fixed any time soon.”

Some of our funk even defies logic. For example, a January Gallup poll found 48 percent believed the economy was getting better. After three quarters of strong GDP growth and low inflation this year, Gallup last month found accelerating angst: The percentage answering “getting better” had plummeted to 25 percent.

Some gloominess is predictable: the war in Iraq, terrorism, natural disasters and high gas prices all stress our tracks and potentially derail the trolley. But another factor receives less attention in the array of angst. It’s partisanship. Sometime in the last several years partisanship became uncalibrated and knee-jerk in Washington. Its prism now colors every issue for many voters, but certainly most in the political class. And as a result, a historical antidote to collective funk — policy-makers coming together to find common ground on some issues is missing. Partisan flu now infects areas of public discourse historically vaccinated from polarization, causing symptoms of stress in the body politic.

Partisan division over the war in Iraq is a good example. Researchers studying trends in institutional support, like congressional and presidential approval or “trust” in government, argue these indicators historically improve when the public focuses on external threats. It’s called the “rally around the flag” phenomenon, and we saw it during the first Gulf War and the events surrounding September 11 — all periods when approval of government, not coincidentally, grew.

Political scientist John Alford studied data from 1958 to 1996, finding a correlation between trust in government and the number of people citing defense/foreign policy as their No. 1 concern. Trust in government rebounds when lawmakers’ criticism shifts from domestic issues to enemies from beyond America’s borders. Consistent with this thesis, congressional and presidential approval surged when Americans focused on the threat of international terrorism following September 11, but then declined as awful memories faded.

A November 2005 Pew study reinforces Mr. Alford’s conjecture. It finds a “decidedly cautious view of America’s place in the world” compared to four years ago and an increasing percentage saying the United States should “mind its own business internationally.” These trends correspond with the falling support for institutions like Congress and overall trust in government.

Hyper-partisanship contributed to this self-doubt. Politics ending at “the water’s edge” is now submerged in a deluge of bickering. The overwhelmingly partisan response to international issues, like the war in Iraq or even the collapse of a consensus on trade, jars most voters. Wars and international crises traditionally bind elites back together, not rip them apart.

Robert A. Caro’s book, “Master of the Senate,” underscores how times have changed. As Democrats gathered for their first caucus meeting, after losing the majority in the 1952 election, they unanimously adopted a policy statement that read, “the issues of war and peace are far too serious to be settled in the arena of narrow partisan debate. They can be solved only by the united wisdom and efforts of all Americans regardless of political affiliation.” It’s doubtful today’s Democratic congressional leaders would utter similar words when Congress returns next week.

Partisan polarization now infects foreign policy and international affairs in a new way. Its flames became particularly hot recently, fanned by the political class bickering over who knew what and when leading up to the war in Iraq. Factors normally causing a rebound in institutional approval — elites cooperating to address external threats — are now attenuated and muffled because of partisan-based disagreement.

Peggy Noonan’s assessment that the trolley’s jumped the track for myriad reasons is correct. But when the public perceives one side consciously pushing it off the rails — in zones that normally cause self-correction, like war and foreign policy — our slow slide toward the world of worry becomes the Anxiety Express.

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