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Polarization in Politics Leaves Progress on Party Lines

Amid congressional funding battles and veto showdowns with the White House, partisan power struggles appear to be as prevalent as ever in American politics. An expert panel examines the polarization divide and assesses how lawmakers might better bridge the partisan gap.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Gridlock over spending bills, the war in Iraq, and children's health care are just a few recent examples of the polarized environment in Washington these days.

    With President Bush's public approval ratings stalled at a career low 33 percent for the fourth straight month and support for the Democratic-led Congress ranking even lower, with just 28 percent of Americans satisfied, are the people and political leaders more divided than ever?

    Here to discuss how we got to this point are four authors of recent books on the subject: Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin, author of "Fight Club Politics"; Merle Black, professor of politics in government at Emory University and co-author of "Divided America"; Ronald Brownstein, political director of Atlantic Media and author of "The Second Civil War"; and syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, co-author of "Common Ground."

    Well, let's start off with a quick thumbnail diagnosis of where we're at, because there's a tremendous commonality that runs through all your work that sort of looks at this and says, "Well, it's not working."

    Ron Brownstein?

  • RONALD BROWNSTEIN, Political Director, Atlantic Media:

    Well, you know, there's a tendency to think about polarization and to think of a symptom as sort of the "Crossfire-ization" of American politics, of partisans of left and right yelling at each other. I think that misses the real cost to the country.

    There is a tangible cost, and you hinted at it in your opening there. As you look across the board at the challenges we face — whether it's health care, energy, entitlements, immigration, spending, developing a sustainable strategy in the war on terror — we are unable to move forward in this society on a 51-49 division.

    Ultimately, if we are going to see progress on the problems that people care about, we're going to need a political leadership that is capable of building broader coalitions than we've been able to see in the last few years. So in that sense, I think the actual impact of this comes right into the home and to the kitchen table.

    And it's not just a question of politicians being mean to other; it's a question of our society not being able to move forward on problems that we care about.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Cal Thomas?

    CAL THOMAS, Co-Author, "Common Ground": I agree with that, and I think he mentioned two words, "polarization" and "partisanship." Partisanship is good or we wouldn't need a two-party system to debate ideas, to debate solutions to problems. This is all good.

    But we've moved beyond partisanship in modern times to polarization, which says, if I happen to be a Republican and my opponent is a Democrat, nothing good can come out of his or her mouth. They are evil, and they must be destroyed.

    Now, this is fueled by the fundraisers, some cable television and talk radio, who treat fellow Americans as the enemies of America. Our real enemies are not the party or persuasion to which we do not belong or subscribe. They're the Taliban, and we'd better get back to that.

    First, we have to identify the problems. Ron went through a list of them. Those are legitimate problems. If we agree on the problem, then we can sit down at table and discuss how to reach the solution, but success is the enemy of polarization. If you have success, then you don't need the fundraisers, the cable TV, and the rest.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Juliet Eilperin?

    JULIET EILPERIN, Author, "Fight Club Politics": Well, I think, when you look at the roots of the problem, like you were alluding to, you have to look at how, for a long time, it's worked for a lot of these politicians, when you look at President Bush and his strategists deliberately appealed to getting out their base in presidential elections, you look at members of Congress who benefit from having politically skewed districts.

    For a long time, it's really helped them get where they are. And I think what's interesting is now, if they read the poll numbers, they're seeing that this kind of polarization isn't working for them anymore politically. And the question is, can they breakthrough it, and break their old habits, and learn how to both reach across the aisle, and also just reach out to a part of the electorate that they haven't bothered to cater to for years?

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Professor Black?

  • MERLE BLACK, Professor, Emory University:

    Well, one of the reasons I think we're having this polarization that we all acknowledge right now is that the parties are more different in terms of ideology than ever before.

    The Republicans are more conservative than they have been historically, and they're more conservative in lots of different ways, because the Republican Party today is based on the South and the mountain plains, instead of the Northeast and the Midwest.

    The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is far more liberal than it ever has been before, too. There once was a conservative wing of the Democratic Party. And historically American conservatism was split. In the North, the conservatives tended to be Republicans; in the South, they were Democrats.

    So It really wasn't until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, that he really brought white conservatives into the Republican Party in very, very large numbers. And that had those two very different effects on both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

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