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Is the glacier of political polarization finally cracking?

Is the glacier of political polarization finally cracking?
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“This feels different.” Ever since the killing of George Floyd, that phrase has been repeated over and over again. And things certainly do feel different. The aftermath of Floyd’s death saw police attack a 75-year-old white man in Buffalo, New York. In Minneapolis, officers indiscriminately pepper sprayed peaceful protestors. Near the White House, demonstrators were attacked with teargas prior to President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE’s photo-op with an upside-down Bible in hand at St. John’s Church. 

The public outcry has been swift: 81 percent say the chokehold placed on Floyd was unjustified; 84 percent believe the resulting protests are justified; 80 percent think the nation is “out of control”; 59 percent are more concerned about unwarranted police actions than violent protestors; 57 percent believe police officers are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans than whites; 65 percent say Trump’s response to the crisis has been harmful to race relations; and 55 percent want a president and Congress who “look for compromise and consensus” rather than division. 

Since 2000, polarization has been the byword of presidential politics. Casual observers know the score: Nearly nine-in-ten Democrats and Republicans have consistently supported their party’s nominee; whites back Republicans; minorities support Democrats; men like Republicans; women prefer Democrats; gun owners stick with Republicans; those who don’t own guns back Democrats; faithful churchgoers pull the Republican lever; those who seldom or don’t attend church vote Democratic. The pattern repeated itself to the point where it became a cruel repetitious bore.

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Party strategists played right along. Presidential campaigns became shouting matches where each side yelled loud enough to mobilize their voters and antagonize the opposition. Democrats did a better job in 2012; Republicans excelled in 2016. Crucial state polling data makes the point. In 2012, Pennsylvania Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 10 points; by 2016, that margin was reduced to 3 points. Similarly, in 2012, Wisconsin Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 5 points; in 2016, that was cut to a 1-point lead. These two states, along with Michigan, gave Trump the keys to the White House.

Donald Trump began 2020 with a clear strategy: Mobilize the GOP base. As former Trump Defense Secretary Gen. James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden under pressure to remove Trump transgender military ban quickly Progressive House Democrats urge Biden against Defense chief with contractor ties Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper MORE recently wrote, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try.”

Trump made the point when he repeated a phrase uttered by a racist Miami police chief in 1967: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Previous presidents sought unity over division. George W. Bush promised to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Making his political debut in 2004, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Five things to know about Antony Blinken, Biden's pick for State Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE described a country where Red and Blue states blended into one America. Both failed to melt the polarization glacier, and each left office with the country more divided than it had been before.

But in the last several days, serious glacial cracks in the polarization iceberg have developed. The coronavirus pandemic has forged a rare national consensus: 77 percent believe the economy is either in fair or poor shape; 66 percent are uncomfortable flying on an airplane or attending a large public gathering; 63 percent are worried they will catch the virus; 63 percent say they always wear a mask when shopping or going to work; 54 percent are uncomfortable eating at a restaurant; and 52 percent say the virus will not be contained until sometime next year — or longer. Not surprisingly, 55 percent disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and 51 percent say he is too focused on reopening the country rather than keeping the public safe.

The coronavirus, together with the Floyd protests, have revealed serious cracks in the Trump coalition. Today, only 37 percent of white Catholics have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump, nearly equal to the 34 percent with no religious affiliation. Trump’s white Catholic support has fallen by 23 percentage points since March. Other Trump-backer groups have also registered declines: White evangelicals, 15-points; white mainline Protestants, 11 points; white men, 10 points; white women, 11 points; white non-college educated voters, 19 points; Republicans, 7 points.

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These declines translate into a nationwide 7-point lead for Joe BidenJoe BidenPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Biden transition adds new members to coronavirus task force MORE. The trends within the polls are equally notable: Among voters with college degrees, Biden beats Trump by 24 points; women, 21 points; voters aged 18-34, 19 points; those aged 65 and older, 8 points; and suburban voters, 3 points. Most significantly, 43 percent of whites back Biden, a percentage equal to that won by Barack Obama in 2008. 

Of course, there remain signs of continued polarization. Today, 45 percent approve of Trump’s job performance — a number unchanged from the 44 percent when he assumed office. The coronavirus also shows a significant party divide. For example, among those who say they regularly wear face masks, Biden has a 40-point lead; among those who don’t, Trump leads by 76 points. Likewise, 44 percent of Republicans want businesses to reopen faster; 95 percent of Democrats prefer a go-slow approach.

But like those glaciers that develop cracks and suddenly fall into the ocean, there are signs that the partisan polarization is developing fissures that will ultimately lead to its collapse. A changing demography that includes more minorities, fewer churchgoers and baby boomers, and more millennials is transforming the electorate. As of now, the polarization glacier remains intact. But the crises of the moment, continued demographic change and Donald Trump’s inability to lead the country have revealed serious cracks in that once-impregnable glacier.

Whether significant chunks slide into the November ocean remains to be seen. But a political transformation is underway. And like climate change, it will alter what was once familiar political terrain.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America and the author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?”