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Dysfunction begins with the parties

The latest impressive study of Trends in American Values from the Pew Research Center is filled with frightening findings.

It sketches a portrait of a country divided less by issues than by partisanship. Moreover, it suggests (my interpretation, not Pew’s) that many of these divisions have not bubbled up from below, not from the people the parties supposedly represent, but rather have been fomented by the parties from above, particularly the GOP. In short, the study suggests our parties have become a threat to the smooth functioning of our democracy, rather than an asset.

Examples from three realms suffice to make the point. Just 20 years ago, in 1992, there was little disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on the need for stricter laws to protect the environment. Ninety-three percent of Democrats and 91 percent of independents agreed, as did 86 percent of Republicans. Today the gulf is wide. Democrats remain exactly where they were — 93 percent still agree with that statement. Among independents there was a 16-point drop-off in agreement. But the GOP fell off the cliff, with agreement plummeting 39 points. It’s worth noting that most of the change among Republicans came after 2009.

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Why so much more change among Republicans than others? I would suggest it’s because their leaders went to war against the EPA and the environment. In 2007, Newt Gingrich was appearing in an ad with Nancy Pelosi demanding action to reduce global warming and John McCain was lending his name to legislation with Joe Lieberman designed to accomplish that goal. But as one recent scholarly study revealed, beginning in 2008, anti-environmental voting among House Republicans started on a steady increase, culminating in 2011 with 191 separate votes by Republicans aimed at weakening environmental protections. More than 1 in 5 House roll calls last year were anti-environment. That sends a signal.

And if anyone doubts the power of such signals, consider what happened in the African-American community after Barack Obama endorsed gay marriage. An ABC/Washington Post poll, reflecting several others, found support for gay marriage increasing by 18 points among African-Americans after the president’s announcement. Leaders impact followers. That’s what makes them leaders. And just as President Obama affected attitudes toward gay marriage in his core constituency, Republican officeholders shaped the attitudes of their constituents toward environmental regulation.

Republican attacks on unions also polarized the country, not so much by changing the attitudes of Americans overall, but by changing the views of Republicans. Democrats and independents have long been more pro-labor than the GOP. In 1987, 76 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of independents and 58 percent of Republicans agreed on the necessity of labor unions to protect the working person. This year, Democrats are 6 points more likely to take that view; independents are just 3 points away from where they were 25 years ago, while Republican agreement with the need for unions fell by 15 points.

Of course, Republicans are not alone in leading their constituents toward division. In the late ’80s and ’90s, everybody thought there was a lot of waste in government: Fifty-nine percent of Democrats along with 65 percent of independents and 65 percent of Republicans said, “When something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful.” Since then independents’ agreement with that view has dropped 2 points. But Democrats’ agreement dropped 18 points, while Republicans agreement increased by 12 points.

Healthy democracy requires some degree of consensus and big doses of cooperation and compromise. Historically parties have led their adherents in ways that facilitate the process. That has changed. Rather than leading toward cooperation and conciliation, parties, particularly the GOP, have led toward polarization and dysfunction. Let’s hope they reconsider.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.

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