National Conventions Magnify Partisan Divisions

Jul 22, 2016

Every four years, Democrats and Republicans hold elaborate conventions to celebrate their candidate of choice and stir up party support. But the events this month also offer an uninterrupted view into the country’s partisan divides.

Credit Thomas Hawk via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/

Presidential candidates have a habit of picking up unofficial mottos along the campaign trail. There’s ‘Drill Baby Drill’ and ‘Yes We Can’. And at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland a new chant emerged: ‘Lock Her Up!’ referring to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Here’s Lieutenant General Michael Flynn leading the chant.

“Lock her up! Lock her up. That’s Right. That’s Right! Lock her up!”

The national conventions, Republican and Democrat, are a platform for the most impassioned political activists, who also tend to be the most partisan. Which means the conversations happening at this month’s back to back conventions could be deeply divisive.

“And nothing can unite a party like someone like Hillary Clinton, who stands for everything that we’re against,” Power said.

That’s Evan Power, a Republican delegate representing Congressional District 2 in Cleveland. Democrats attending the upcoming convention in Philadelphia could say the same about GOP nominee Donald Trump. According to the Real Clear Politics average of polling data, both Trump and Clinton are viewed unfavorably by more than 55% of people. So how did the country end up with these two deeply divisive candidates? Michael Gibbons is a retired professor from the University of South Florida, and he says the nature of the parties is changing.  

“We went from a period where in the 1950s and 60s you had conservatives and liberals in the Democratic Party, you had conservatives and liberals in the Republican Party,” Gibbons said.

Credit thebrooke via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/thebrooke/

Data from the Pew Research Center shows that increasingly, liberals are Democrats, and conservatives are Republicans. It may sound obvious today, but that wasn’t always the case. Gibbons and other academics, argue that this ideological restructuring stems from the Southern Strategy, which began in 1968. Republicans appealed to the racial resentment of Southern whites to win their votes, transforming much of the region into a GOP stronghold. And over the past two decades, the parties have become even more ideologically divided.

“Well it’s probably as bad as it’s ever been. I mean in the 20th century at least,” Gibbons said.

If this month’s back to back conventions feel more partisan than usual, that’s because they are. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who deeply mistrust the other party is on the rise. 27% of Democrats, and 36% of Republicans see the other party as a threat to the nation’s wellbeing. Long-time Democratic player Jon Ausman believes politics have never been tidy, but he says that lately civility has taken a blow.

“You have to work and you have to organize a system that in many ways discourages participation,” Ausman said.

Credit Georgia Democrats via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/59795954@N07/

And he says the advent of the 24 hour news cycle and online journalism doesn’t help.

“Everybody has a bullhorn. The twitter. The Facebook. The instant photos. The instant blog. And as a consequence we’re hearing more angry voices, unfiltered. Rather than them being filtered in the old days when they’d have to go through tv commentator or they’d have to go through newsprint,” Ausman said.

Meanwhile, Ausman says Congress is grinding to a halt, making little progress on gun control or funding for the Zika virus, all while an empty chair on the Supreme Court gathers dust. Jackson County GOP leader Jim Peacock, like most Americans, wants lawmakers to compromise.

“They’re putting forth some good ideas. But it’s hard to get them passed. And I don’t know how to get around it,” Peacock said.

According to the Pew Research Center, the deeply partisan animosity stems from a minority of party activists. Most people don’t believe the other party is a threat to the country. And most people want lawmakers to meet in the middle. But those moderates are losing ground.