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A Country Divided

President Obama's poll numbers slipped dramatically over his first year in office. Since last February, the percent of Americans who say they approve of his performance has fallen twenty points. Just about half of us say we approve of his performance today. According to recent Gallup polling, Obama is still very popular among Democrats, 82% of whom still approve of the job he's doing. That's down just six points from last February. But that means that his popularity has fallen precipitously among Republicans, from 41% a year ago to just 18% today. Only Bill Clinton was less popular among members of the other party during his first year in office.

As Gallup points out, the 65-point gap between Obama's approval ratings among Democrats and among Republicans is the largest ever for a first-year President. Ultimately, George W. Bush may prove to be the more polarizing president. The 45-point gap in his approval ratings during his first year were historically fairly high, even though the terrorist attacks on September 11 rallied Democrats in his support. And over the course of the next 7 years the gap in Bush's ratings was similar to the gap in Obama's, reaching a high of 83 points before the elections in 2004. But the fact is that the country's attitude toward its presidents has been become steadily more polarized since Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, with Reagan, Clinton, the second Bush, and Obama—the first President Bush was a little bit of an exception—all more polarizing figures than even Richard Nixon.

This political divide has been widening for a long time. Where our political parties were once broad coalitions of interest groups, genuinely big tents encompassing both liberal and conservative perspectives, they are now divided strictly along ideological lines. Whole regions of the country have become overwhelmingly Republican or Democrat. As a wide variety of news sources have become available to average person, carefully moderate news organizations like the New York Times are being replaced by more partisan outfits like Fox News and MSNBC. And for all the wonderful energy of the blogosphere, it is often just a dialogue of the deaf, in which conservatives and liberals talk at cross-purposes without ever responding to one another. Now, if we choose our news sources carefully, we never have to be confronted by anything that would make us question our preconceptions.

The polarization of our electorate has undermined the collegiality of our political organizations. It has become increasingly difficult for us to understand how someone could even believe the things the other party believes, when we the people we know and trust all confirm our own intuitions. And it has become increasingly easy to demonize our political opponents, rather than see them as people with whom we have honest disagreements. That's part of the reason why Republicans, as I wrote yesterday, seem more interested in defeating the Democrats in the fall than in helping to craft legislation.

Our increasingly nasty political rhetoric simply reinforces our divisions. A recent Daily Kos poll found that majorities of Republican either believe or think it's possible that 1) that President Obama was born outside the U.S.; 2) he hates white people; 3) he wants the terrorists to win; and 4) he should be impeached for some reason. As bizarre as that is, it would be a mistake to dismiss the majority of Republicans as stupid or insane. After all, these are precisely the things that they have been told again and again by party leaders they trust. Nor would it surprise me if a similar poll had found equally strange beliefs among Democrats about Bush when he was president. Reasonable people can certainly disagree strongly with Obama's policies, just as reasonable people could disagree strongly with Bush's policies. And it's certainly worth fighting over these issues—our very lives are at stake. But it's time to be grown-ups again, and remember that those who disagree with us are not generally bad people, but are for the most part just people like ourselves.

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