This time around there's just so too much at stake. In healthcare, for instance, the issues are extensive, regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court justices decide this month about the fate of our healthcare reform law. We still have Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to fund in times of annual trillion-dollar budget deficits. There's still a trillion dollars-plus in automatic spending cuts that few believe is the best approach to deficit reduction. And as this page has noted previously, the “fiscal cliff” might sound overly dramatic, but the economic threat is very real.
Standing in the way of progress is the current level of partisanship, which has hit new extremes. That isn't just rhetoric; it's hard data, according to a survey released last week by the Pew Research Center, which found that the partisanship gap—the difference between Democrats and Republicans on critical values questions—is at its highest since the Reagan administration. The gap has nearly doubled, from 10% in 1987 to 18% this year. And the sharpest increases have occurred during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies. Surprised?
Where are the deepest divides? The issue showing the biggest gap involves the social safety net, with potentially huge implications for healthcare policy. Here, the partisan wedge grew from 23% in 1987 to 41% this year. Given the statement, “It is the responsibility of government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves,” 40% of Republicans agreed with that statement, down from 62% in 1987. Some 75% of Democrats agree with the statement, down from 79% in '87. So the swing is occurring across the board, but with Republicans it's been much wider.
The next most divisive issue involves environmental policy—and its public health implications—which saw the partisan divide expand from 5% in 1992, when that index was started, to 39% in 2012. Given the statement, “There needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment,” 47% of GOP respondents agreed, down sharply from 86% in 1992. Among Democrats, the percentage was unchanged at 93% agreeing with the statement.
Even amid the yawning partisanship divide, the survey did offer some positive findings. Among them: “The polling finds little support for the broad notion of American 'declinism.' As has been the case in previous political values surveys, a large majority agrees that 'as Americans we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want.' ”
We'll see about that, but it's something to cling to in face of all the casualties in our long uncivil war.