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    HomePoliticsOpinion | How polarization and contempt lock in the political status quo

    Opinion | How polarization and contempt lock in the political status quo

    Foresight, it has been said, is a dream from which events awaken us. But until events teach otherwise, expect American politics to continue today’s remarkable condition: boiling but frozen.

    Polarization has produced stasis. In this century’s presidential elections 2000-2020, 36 states have voted only for one party’s nominee.

    And vast electoral swings have been missing. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Sen. Barry Goldwater by 22.6 points. Eight years later, President Richard M. Nixon defeated Sen. George McGovern by 23.2 points. In the subsequent 12 elections the average victory margin has been 5.8 points. Since 1988, the largest margin was President Bill Clinton’s 8.5 points over Sen. Bob Dole in 1996.

    In the 20th century, every presidential winner won the popular vote; two of the first five in this century did not. In 1976, a Democrat won Texas (Jimmy Carter, with 51.1 percent) and a Republican won Illinois (President Gerald Ford with 50.1 percent). In 1976, 20 states were won by 5 points or less (including California, New York, Texas and Mississippi); in 2020, just eight states were. The average 2020 margin of victory in the states was 18.8 points (a figure somewhat skewed by President Donald Trump’s gaudy 39-point margin in West Virginia).

    In 1976, the winning margin in a majority of House contests was 10 points or less; in 2020, just 75 of 435 were that close. Today there are 39 “trifecta states” in which the governorship and both houses of the legislature (including Nebraska, which has a unicameral legislature) are held by the same party (17 by Democrats, 22 by Republicans), the largest number since 1947.

    In 2016, for the first time since direct election of senators began in 1914, every Senate race was won by someone from the party whose presidential candidate carried the state that year. In 2020, only one state (Maine, reelecting Republican Susan Collins) voted for opposite parties for president and senator.

    As recently as 2006, 10 of 33 Senate contests were won by a candidate from the party that had lost the state’s presidential race in 2004. In 2022’s 35 Senate races, only one state (Wisconsin, which reelected Republican Ron Johnson) elected a senator from the party that lost the state’s 2020 presidential vote.

    The Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone notes that in 2022 Republicans won a House majority as narrow as that then held by Democrats. No senator lost. Only one governor did (Nevada’s Steve Sisolak), and he had been elected in 2018 with just 49 percent. “It’s hard to see,” Barone writes, “how the voters could have done a better job of cementing in place the policy status quo.”

    Yet who is happy? René Descartes’ “cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) has become for many Americans “I despise, therefore I am.” Contempt for the other tribe, rather than affection for one’s own, is life’s animating passion.

    The increasing intensity of politics might be related to secularization — spiritual restlessness and yearning for community sublimated into politics. In the 1950s, newspaper classified ads for real estate in some cities (e.g., Philadelphia, Chicago) identified properties’ locations by their parishes. As recently as 2000, 70 percent of Americans professed membership in a church, synagogue or mosque; today, 47 percent do. “Nones” — Americans professing no religious affiliation — have increased from, roughly, 5 percent to 25 percent just since 1990.

    Today’s solidarity-in-animosity makes Henry Adams’s definition of politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds” more accurate than it was when he wrote it in his 1907 autobiography “The Education of Henry Adams.” On the left as well as the right, there are those who, with hostility oozing from every pore, fit George Santayana’s description of a barbarian: someone who thinks his passions are their own excuse for existing.

    So many are so like Donald Trump, whose education ended before he was full to the brim, and who has what a critic once ascribed to a singer — “persistence beyond the call of talent.” Recently he tried halfheartedly to move beyond his grievances to a public agenda. The result was flapdoodle about 10 brand-spanking-new cities to be built on federal land by government, which has not recently been known for competently constructing things.

    With a chip on his shoulder the size of Montana, Trump is a man for this moment of boiling passions and frozen politics. When passions cool, as they will, today will be remembered for its embarrassing contradiction. Until then, however, remember Honoré de Balzac’s advice: “Believe everything you hear about the world; nothing is too impossibly bad.”



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