'Stark Ideological Divides' Are Getting Starker

One phrase proves a perennial predictor of the nation's mood.

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The cliche: "In unveiling his deficit-reduction plan Monday, President Obama spelled out stark ideological distinctions between himself and Republicans," wrote Aamer Madhani and David Jackson of USA Today. Not just stark, though, these distinctions may be the starkest. As David Brooks says today, "If it is Obama versus Rick Perry, then that will be the starkest ideological choice the country has ever been offered." Brooks is seemingly echoing his Times colleague Ross Douthat, who blogged on Monday: "[I]f Rick Perry wins the Republican nomination, we’ll be set up for the starkest ideological collision in a presidential election since 1964."

Where it's from: Douthat may be right to point us to the 1960s. "Stark ideological divide" is always an often-seen political phrase to be sure, but the frequency with which it is used seems to ebb and flow along with the nation's mood. Google's NGram Viewer, which searches Google Books for mentions of words and phrases over time, reveals a pretty interesting depiction of the often-heard argument that politics has grown ever more divisive in recent decades:

Searching the words "stark ideological", it appears the phrase got very little use before the 1960s and has been steadily on the rise since then. Its frequency has occasionally and notably picked up and dropped off. There's a peak around 1970, an era when Watergate, Vietnam, and hippies surely led to some stark ideological divides. It then dies down through the 1970s before picking up again rapidly beginning in 1980. It peaks again in 1994 when, you'll recall, Republicans won the house and ideological divides became stark enough to shut down the government. From then on, talk of "stark ideological" things stays pretty high, with yet another spurt in the past few years.

Why's it catching on: Perhaps we again find ourselves in a period of frequently cited "stark ideological divides" because Obama took "a sharp left turn" as The Wall Street Journal put it. While liberal pundits have been castigating the right as "intransigent" for months now, moderates like David Brooks are also lamenting Obama's abandonment of his moderate identity since he revealed details of his debt plan. (Liberals are noticing the abandonment as well, they just aren't lamenting it.) But either way, this leaves us with a punditry that condemns both the left and the right as uncompromising proponents of their base's values. The time is ripe for claims of "stark ideological divide".

Why else? Merriam Webster defines stark, as it is used here, as "sharply delineated." But "stark" can also mean "barren" or "desolate." In that sense, it's the perfect word for a country that fears another recession, a European financial implosion, and a spate of other disasters. As polls often remind us, Americans aren't sure the country is moving in the right direction, nor are they confident in their political leaders, so its no wonder we keep seeing those leaders' ideologies cast as "stark."

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