In 2004, a junior senator from Illinois gave a speech that transformed the Democratic Party. Barack Obama's words inspired many to believe that a great uniter had arrived:
We worship an awesome god in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.
We coach little league in the blue states, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.
We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes.
The audience was rapturous, the presses were awash in praise, and a clairvoyant Chris Matthews said that he had “seen the first black president.”
Obama centered his speech on the theme of citizens’ shared purpose in spite of their differences. He assured listeners that the more traditional, rural communities sprawling America’s heartland and the South have a great deal in common with their fellow citizens in the multicultural, urban areas dotting the industrial Midwest and hugging the coasts.
Ironically, twelve years later, Obama is handing his successor a more disaffected, dissimilar and disunited country than it ever was during the Bush years.
Politically, the country has never been so polarized. According to a Pew research survey, the overall share of Americans expressing consistently liberal or conservative opinions has doubled over the past two decades. Moreover, about a third of Republicans and Democrats view the opposing party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” Ideological overlap has all but evaporated between the parties, a sociological phenomenon that accounts for congressional gridlock. Unsurprisingly, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have respectively carried the same forty states over the past four election cycles; besides a handful of states, the Electoral College shows no signs of a tectonic shift.
About thirty percent of conservatives say they would be disappointed if a family member married a Democrat
Interestingly, the survey not only reveals increasing levels of ideological homogeneity and mutual antipathy among Democrats and Republicans, it also demonstrates how politics have become more central to Americans’ identities. Politics now informs questions of marital relationships; about thirty percent of conservatives say they would be disappointed if a family member married a Democrat. It influences friendships; about half of liberals say most of their friends share their viewpoints. And it can even determine where Democrats and Republicans choose to live. Liberals prefer walkable, multiethnic communities, while conservatives want bigger houses in more secluded, homogenous neighborhoods. Politics is no longer just a debate about policy; it is a cultural matter.
One’s class used to presuppose one’s politics. Now, one’s personal taste is often a better determinant. Consequently, the parties have become more socioeconomically diverse. In most inner-party elections nowadays, the contest often comes down to a “wine and cheese” candidate against a “fish and chips” type: Obama vs. Clinton, Romney vs. Santorum, McCain vs. Huckabee. Notwithstanding, class indicates one’s political identity far less than things like one’s preferred recreation, region and religion.
The word “Democrat” wasn’t always a punchline for conservatives, and liberals didn’t always compulsively grimace after hearing the word “Republican.” Hardened by their dogmas, Americans seem to forget how fluid, venial and extraneous politics used to be. Over the past twenty years, two sharply opposed ideological societies—one blue, one red—have developed concomitantly within the United States. This polarization will only intensify until we collectively decide that restoring civil discourse is more important than short-term politics.
Regrettably, it seems that Lincoln was wrong; a house divided against itself can in fact stand—for the time being, at least.