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How Politically Polarized Is The Country, Really?

April 9, 2015

Political commentators Michael Gerson and E.J. Dionne Jr. agreed in a recent public talk at Duke University that political polarization is at its worst levels ever due to broad cultural changes, ideological sorting and increased institutionalization of division.

Gerson is an opinion writer for The Washington Post and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He is also the the inaugural Pamela and Jack Egan Visiting Professor at Duke,  He called the current political environment “unusually polarized.”

Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for The Washington Post, added, “We don’t even live near each other politically. We surround ourselves with people who believe the same things we do, who live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, and people who share our political views. We are sorting ourselves by choice.”

Partisan Media Outlets?

“A significant section of American politics is delegitimizing opponents, which is aided by the growth of partisan media," said Gerson. "When people watch Fox News or MSNBC exclusively, they are searching for ammunition, not information, to attack their opponents. There is the notion of ideological teams where the other side can’t have any victories." Polarization has significant implications for how our government performs, and makes Congress less functional, he noted. “Both parties believe that they can win and ‘take it all’ in the next election, so there is less impetus for negotiation.”

>> Watch the complete talk

Dionne lambasted Republicans who accuse President Obama of creating an ultra-left government.

“When I heard that, I thought, well, Obama must be the most incompetent socialist,” Dionne said. “The stimulus was mostly tax cuts and it was not far-reaching enough. Obamacare did not ‘fundamentally change’ the role of government. It was a compromise and not very government-oriented. The idea of exchanges was taken from the Heritage Foundation and the individual mandate was a conservative idea.”

Dionne also was sharply critical of GOP efforts to delegitimize Obama’s presidency with claims he was born in Kenya, attacks that Dionne said were race-based.

Changing Demographics

In the next presidential election, the GOP must “confront the changing demographics of America,” or face another likely loss, Gerson said. “In order for them to win the next election without engaging minority groups, they would need near historic levels of the white vote to win.”

Dionne quipped that Republicans’ attitudes towards engaging minority voters is, “We’d rather not have you vote, but please vote for us,” he joked. Dionne also suggested “losing three presidential elections may induce change in the Republican party.”

When asked about voter apathy and disillusionment with government, Gerson said, “Not voting and saying ‘politics doesn’t matter’ is an attitude that is the luxury of the comfortable. Government can be a place where large, important issues are adjudicated.”

Dionne agreed, and argued for optimism.

“Government can be inefficient and make mistakes, but it can also lift people up and give them opportunities they would not have had otherwise,” Dionne said. “People wanted to believe in their democracy in 2008, and I don’t know how quickly this can happen again, but it was not so long ago that people believed in the power of democracy.”

Politics, Pundits and Polarization was the 2015 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture.

the event with the crowd