The Polarization Meme

I was scarfing a Five Guys burger yesterday late in the afternoon - good times - when I glanced over the op-ed page of the Washington Post. I read this piece by Michael Gerson, chuckled and scoffed a little and then went on my merry way to the gym. But it's the kind of piece whose layers of flim-flam and chutzpah take time to impress themselves on the mind.

Here's the premise, a premise which, despite its rank untruth, will, if I know anything about how these people work, be repeated again and again and again. Drum roll:

Who has been the most polarizing new president of recent times? Richard Nixon? Ronald Reagan? George W. Bush? No, that honor belongs to President Barack Obama.

Now we know the poll they're referring to. It's Pew's poll. Over to Nate Silver:

[M]easurements of the partisan split in support for the President, as Pew Research has done here (they found a record partisan split in Obama's approval ratings, with 88 percent of Democrats but just 27 percent of Republicans approving of Obama's performance) are not quite as straightforward as they might seem. This is because partisan identification is at least somewhat fluid. The Republicans, in particular, have lost quite a bit of support over the past several years; those persons who continue to identify as Republicans are a hardened -- and very conservative -- lot. Just 24 percent of voters identified as Republican when Pew conducted this survey in March, which is roughly as low as that total has ever gotten.

When you look at it this way, you discover what is really going on. Nate again:

Obama and Bush had roughly the same level of support among members of their own party (88 percent for Obama, 87 percent for Bush) and roughly the same level of support among unaffiliated voters (57 percent for Obama, 56 for Bush). Bush, however, had more support from the opposition party (36 percent of Democrats versus 27 percent of Republicans). And yet Obama, not Bush, had the higher overall approval rating, because Democrats are a significantly larger constituency than Republicans.

The key to judging whether a president is polarizing is how the middle, or Independents, are seeing him. The reason is simple. A president might be as open to engagement as possible, but if his opposition is determined to destroy and demonize him from Day One, he can't do much about that. But independents give a better sense of whether the president is forcing the center to divide into two poles. So here's Obama's current independent support:

Compare that with the Democrats and Republicans. The polarization being touted by Rove and Wehner and Gerson and the rest of the Bush left-overs is almost entirely a function of Obama's astonishing popularity among Dems, buoyancy among Independents (whose approval rating is very close to the national average), and extremely polarized and shrinking pool of Republicans. To interpret that as Obama's fault, rather than a function of GOP extremism and disaffection, whipped up by Fox and Drudge and Pajamas and the rest of that machine, is, well, Rovian. But it is a reminder of what alone can keep the Bush-Rove GOP alive: the same old, ancient culture war debate that Obama offers us a chance to move past. They will do all they can to keep dividing this country until they see some signs of progress for their operation. That's all they've got.