How American voters fell out of love with their own parties


Leon Neyfakh is the Globe’s Ideas reporter. He writes about new research and thought coming out of academia. He was previously a reporter at the New York Observer.

... As politics in America continue to grow more negative and more polarized, the words “Democrat” and “Republican” have practically become slurs. This clearly reflects the feelings of voters: Record numbers of them—49 percent of the red team and 33 percent of the blue—said in one survey that they would be unhappy if their son or daughter married someone from the other side. Back in 1960, those numbers were 5 and 4 percent, respectively, which tells you just about everything you need to know about how much more deeply divided we are today.

Here’s what’s strange, though: As much as Americans seem to hate the party they’re against—roughly 40 percent of both Republicans and Democrats said they had a “very unfavorable” view of the opposing party in a recent Pew poll—their feelings tend to be muted, if not actually ambivalent, about the party they’re supposedly for. Sure, individual candidates inspire public displays of support, but the parties they represent, not so much. Fully 42 percent of the American public now call themselves “independent,” rather than Democratic or Republican, according to a recent Gallup poll—more than at any other point in history. “People don’t strongly identify with their parties today,” said Heather Cox Richardson, a political historian at Boston College. “It has become much easier for leaders to get elected by opposing things and creating an enemy rather than creating a big-tent, positive message. When was the last time you saw someone wearing a Democrat or Republican button?”

It wasn’t always this way. The last time America was as politically polarized along party lines as it is now, the clash was fueled by genuine excitement about the parties. Starting roughly in the 1830s and ending around the turn of the 20th century, being a Democrat, a Republican, or a Whig was a huge component of one’s public identity. The “party period,” as it has come to be known among historians, was marked by rowdy and emotional parades and celebrations where people trumpeted their party affiliations the way sports fans today trumpet their allegiance to their favorite teams.

The absence of that spirit today says a great deal about how politics has changed. The two parties have increasingly distinguished themselves along clear ideological lines, which means fewer Americans see their own set of beliefs reflected exactly by either one. And in an era when neither party seems capable of accomplishing its goals, Americans are reluctant to embrace either team while growing ever more enraged at the people they believe are responsible for gridlock.

But if the rejection of party identity is understandable—and might even seem like an appropriate response to today’s acid political culture—it also comes with costs. More than they have for generations, the Democrats and the Republicans actually stand for truly distinct ideas about how to govern. The conflict between them isn’t just a power struggle, but a serious battle over what kind of country we want. And according to some experts, the fact that so many Americans don’t passionately or proudly identify with either side—even if they do hold the other in extreme contempt—contributes to a political culture in which neither party enjoys enough loyalty to govern effectively. To look back at the positive partisanship of the 19th century is to wonder how much less toxic and gridlocked our system might be today if, instead of merely loathing the party we liked less, we could channel our polarization into fervent enthusiasm for the one we liked more...

Read entire article at The Boston Globe

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