IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A Long Division: Political Polarization Is Worse Than Ever, and Here to Stay

With just over two weeks to go until Election Day, the country looks and sounds more like the Divided States of America.
Get more newsLiveonNBC News Now

With just over two weeks to go until Election Day, the country looks and sounds more like the Divided States of America.

Here are the voices of voters, according to verbatim responses about the nation’s direction from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll:

  • “Republicans are obstructing any progress in Congress... They are pretty much trying to prevent the government from helping people”;
  • “Our foreign policy has fallen apart because of our idiot president”;
  • “I think that it is too many people blaming the president, rather than trying to help and support the causes that are important in America”;
  • “I don’t think [President Obama] has the nation’s best interests at heart and is more interested in just people pleasing”;
  • “I feel like people are too polarized and not compromising. We’re at a standstill.”

The dominant political story heading into the Nov. 4 midterm elections isn’t control of the U.S. Senate, or President Obama’s approval ratings, or the party that captures the most governor’s mansions across the nation.

Instead, it’s that this country – long known for its combative politics, especially before an election – is more divided today than it has been in decades. And it’s likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

“No question: Politics has become more bitterly partisan and mean spirited as I have seen in 30 years of writing a political newsletter,” says Charlie Cook, who founded the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Voters are just as divided, too: A Pew study this year found the percentage of Americans saying they are consistently conservative or liberal has doubled since 1994 (from 10 percent to 21 percent), while the center has shrunk (from 49 percent to 39 percent). Maybe more tellingly, 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans see the political opposition as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.”

Those numbers also are reflected in Washington’s political makeup: According to National Journal’s Ron Brownstein, author of “The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America,” Democrats now hold almost all of the Senate seats (43 out of 52) in the 26 states that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. And Republicans hold nearly all of the Senate seats (34 out of 44) in the 22 states that voted against the president both times.

“Essentially, we have a durable standoff between a diverse, younger, urbanized, more secular Democratic coalition, and a predominately white, older, non-urban and more religious Republican coalition,” Brownstein says.

And here’s the rub: That divide likely isn’t going away, no matter what happens on Election Day. Outside an exception here or there – say in places like Colorado, Iowa or Kansas – Republicans are expected to increase their dominance in the red states, while Democrats are expected to hold on in the blue ones.

“I don’t see any of this reversing anytime soon,” Brownstein adds.

How we got here: Going all the way back to Indiana’s “Bloody Eighth”

So how did we get here? Opinions vary. There’s the fight over Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America. Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The 2000 Bush v. Gore recount. The Iraq war and its aftermath. Or the more recent fights over the health-care law and the debt limit.

But the Cook Political Report’s Charlie Cook traces this era of increased polarization back to 1984, when Democrats and Republicans battled over the contested election for Indiana’s Eighth Congressional District – famously dubbed the “Bloody Eighth.”

In that razor-close race, the GOP challenger was initially declared the winner by Indiana’s Republican secretary of state, but the Democratic-controlled House refused to seat him. After recounts, the House declared the Democratic incumbent to be the winner.

Without question, politics is far more polarizing than I’ve experienced in my 34 years in the U.S. Senate.

“In no time, the House developed a poisonous culture,” Cook says. “This soon led to ethical headhunting, trying to get opposition party leaders forced out of the House and even prosecuted. Professional courtesy was dead.”

Cook adds that poisonous culture later moved over to the U.S. Senate during the battle over Bork’s nomination. And the Whitewater investigation and impeachment “sank things down to new depths” during the Clinton years.

The proliferation of outside political groups – and their threat of primary challengers to enforce party discipline – also has played a role.

“There are more incentives to be divisive than to be united,” former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, tells NBC News.

And then there’s the rise of partisan media and the Internet. “You want a culprit for all this? The Internet, email and cable TV,” says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “They have conspired to polarize the electorate and our politicians.”

How Obama’s presidency and today’s GOP made things worse

Strikingly, this wave of increased polarization has peaked during the presidency of Barack Obama – who first stepped onto the national stage with his unifying speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.

“There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America,” he said in that speech. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”

But since the nation’s first African-American president was elected, it’s been one partisan fight after another. The stimulus. Health care. The debt ceiling. Immigration. Foreign policy. And now even Ebola.

Of course, Obama is only part of this current story. The other part is that Republicans and the Tea Party refused to compromise – especially on a health-care law largely based on Republican Mitt Romney’s achievement in Massachusetts.

Indeed, as journalist Robert Draper wrote, key Republicans – Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, Jim DeMint – had a dinner the night of Obama’s inauguration plotting the way to sink his presidency by opposing, well, everything.

“Republicans never wanted to give Obama a chance. But he never wanted to compromise, either,” Rothenberg says.

How things can get better

Olympia Snowe, the former moderate Republican senator, agrees that today’s politics is more divided than it’s been in decades. “Without question, politics is far more polarizing than I’ve experienced in my 34 years in the U.S. Senate.”

But earlier this year, she and a bipartisan band of ex-senators – including former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott – unveiled a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center recommending ways to fix America’s political polarization

Among the ideas:

  • The country should hold a National Primary Day in June for all congressional primaries (to boost voter turnout);
  • All political contributions (even those to outside groups) should be disclosed;
  • Congress should have five-day workweeks (imagine that!);
  • The president should hold regular monthly meetings with congressional leaders (it’s amazing that has to be written down!);
  • Americans ages 18-28 should commit to one full year of service to their communities or nation.

“These proposals are not a magic elixir that will restore America’s body politic to health overnight,” the authors wrote. “Our recommendations are practical and achievable and, if implemented, will be a first step toward lowering the temperature on an overheating, polarized political process.”

But magic elixir or first step – any change will have to wait until after the midterms. And even then, it’s hard to see how or when the cooling off begins.

NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this article.