WARNING: Not for those with limited attention spans.
In politics, polarization is the process by which the public opinion divides and goes to the extremes. It can also refer to when the extreme factions of a political party gain dominance in a party. In either case moderate voices often lose power and influence as a consequence.
Definitions of polarization
The term "polarization" comes from political science. There, it is a measure of the electorate's response to a political figure or position; it is not an assessment of, or a value judgment upon, a political figure. It does not mean that a political figure is necessarily unelectable. Political figures can receive a polarized response from the public through actions of their own, through historical trends or accidents, or due to external forces such as media bias.
Political scientists principally measure polarization in two ways. One is "plain" or generic polarization, often referred to as popular polarization, which happens when opinions diverge towards poles of distribution or intensity. Political scientists several kinds of metrics to measure popular polarization, such as the American National Election Studies' "feeling thermometer" polls, which measure the degree of opinion about a political figure.
The other form that political scientists examine is partisan polarization, which happens when support for a political figure or position differentiates itself along political party lines.
Popular media definitions and uses of "polarization" tend to be looser.
I found this piece an interesting explanation of what one interpreter found from a recent survey:
April 6, 2009
'POLARIZING'.... The Pew Research Center released a poll a few days ago showing -- surprise, surprise -- Democrats like President Obama a whole lot more than Republicans do.
In fact, according to the Pew report, Obama "has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades."
There's a 61-point partisan gap -- 88% of Democrats approve of the president's on-the-job performance, while 27% of Republicans say the same.
This has led more than a few conservatives to argue today that this gap is, of course, the president's fault.
Peter Wehner argued, for example, "It became apparent quite early that bipartisanship was a fictional commitment for Barack Obama; shutting Republicans out of negotiations and promoting what ranks among the most left-wing domestic agendas in our lifetime was all the evidence some of us needed.
Apparently most of the rest of the nation understands that as well."
First, I hardly think it's accurate to say that "most" see the president is overly partisan.
In reality, most of the nation approves of Obama's job performance, and remain unconcerned about partisanship.
The 61-point partisan gap in the Pew survey, while obviously large, is partly the result of Democratic satisfaction.
As Andrew Sullivan noted, "The percentage of Republicans approving of Obama at this point is almost identical to that approving of Clinton in 1993."
Obama is, therefore, more "polarizing" because he enjoys more support from Democrats now than Clinton did 16 years ago.
Indeed, Michael Dimock, Pew's associate director, told Greg Sargent that conservatives are misreading the results of the survey when they blame Obama for the broader dynamic, calling their conclusion "unfair."
Dimock says the divide is driven by long term trends and by the uncommonly enthusiastic reaction to Obama by members of his own party -- by what he calls "the way Democrats are reacting to Obama."
Interestingly, Dimock also said this phenomenon is partly caused by the recent tendency of Republicans to be less charitable towards new Presidents than Dems have been.
In contrast to the 27% of GOPers approving of Obama now, more than a third of Dems (36%) approved of George W. Bush at a comparable time in 2001.
Before that, only 26% of Republicans approved of Bill Clinton at the same time in his presidency, while 41% of Dems approved of both George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan at comparable times.
"Polarizing" is an overly used buzzword, anyway.
For most of his second term, George W. Bush wasn't polarizing; he was just spectacularly unpopular among almost every group and constituency.
Dems, Republicans, and independents couldn't wait for Bush to go.
But at least he wasn't polarizing!
Obama, in contrast, enjoys fairly broad support, including more than one in four Republicans.
Conservatives want to say that makes the president "polarizing"?
Whatever makes them feel better.
For 'balance' as FOX News likes to claim, here's another view of the same poll results by a former Presidential speechwriter:
[I'll let you decide which political party the writer belongs to]
The Most Polarizing President
By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Who has been the most polarizing new president of recent times?
Richard Nixon? Ronald Reagan? George W. Bush?
No, that honor belongs to Barack Obama.
According to the Pew Research Center, the gap between Republican and Democratic approval ratings for Bush a few months into his first term was about 51 percentage points.
For Obama, this partisan gap stands at 61 points.
Obama has been a unifier, of sorts.
He has united Democrats and united Republicans -- against each other.
The Pew report notes that this is the extension of a long-term trend.
Decades ago, a majority of Democrats approved of Richard Nixon's job performance early in his first term.
A majority of Republicans did the same for Jimmy Carter.
But that has not been true for any president since.
Ron Brownstein, the author of "The Second Civil War," cites a variety of structural reasons for intensified division.
There has been a "sorting out" of the political parties, making each more ideologically uniform.
Long, nasty presidential campaigns stoke our differences.
Media outlets have become more partisan.
Ideological interest groups have proliferated.
Congressional leaders have changed the rules, making it easier to impose party discipline.
But Obama was supposed to be the antidote to the poison of partisanship.
During the presidential campaign, chief strategist David Axelrod told Brownstein, "If there's an enhanced Democratic majority, I think that he's going . . . to urge a special sense of responsibility to try and forge coalitions around these answers, not because we won't be able to force our will in many cases, but because, ultimately, effective governance requires it in the long term."
That makes last week's votes on the budget resolutions a landmark of ineffective governance.
Not a single Republican in the House or Senate supported the bill, largely because the Democratic majo0rity forced its will. Republicans were flattened, not consulted.
Democratic leaders talk of enacting controversial elements of the budget through the "reconciliation" process -- which would require 51 Senate votes, not the normal 60, for passage.
Only in Washington would the word "reconciliation" refer to a form of partisan warfare.
Without Republican input or influence, the budget is a tax-and-spend caricature.
Obama has complained of inheriting a $1.3 trillion debt.
According to economist Michael Boskin, Obama's proposals would add $6.5 trillion in debt over the next decade -- about $163,000 for every American taxpaying family.
I am not generally a deficit hawk.
A government can run a responsible deficit in a growing economy -- and may have to run one to counteract an economic downturn.
But Obama's proposed level of debt is irresponsible.
It makes broad tax increases nearly inevitable.
It expands our dependence on China, America's loan officer.
And it creates pressure for the government to purchase or monetize debt, leading to inflation.
No Republican, even of the moderate variety, could accept a budget that spends America into unsustainable debt by completely avoiding the setting of realistic priorities.
And none in Congress did.
There is an argument in favor of political polarization.
Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan, in their time, were polarizing presidents precisely because they were ambitious presidents. They believed that some national goals were worth the sacrifice of amity.
A decisive leader is sometimes a divisive leader.
But Obama's polarizing approach challenges and changes the core of his political identity.
His moderate manner and message appealed to a country weary of division and ambition -- a nation now asked to endure another round of both.
But Obama's domestic agenda is also resoundingly typical -- as though he were some conventionally liberal backbench senator suddenly thrust into immense influence.
Which, of course, he is.
It would have been relatively easy for President Obama to divide the Republican coalition, peeling off less-partisan Republicans with genuine outreach.
Many Republicans were prepared to accept short-term deficits to stimulate the economy in exchange for long-term fiscal responsibility.
Obama could have focused more narrowly on resolving the financial crisis -- the key to all economic recovery -- and delayed his ambitions on other issues to a more realistic time.
In the process, he might have gotten some Republicans to share his political risks instead of nursing grievances on the sidelines.
Polarization in American politics has its own disturbing momentum, aided by some strident Republican voices.
But that does not require a president to make it worse.
And it is a sad, unnecessary shame that Barack Obama, the candidate of unity, has so quickly become another source of division.
You tell me, who's sticking to the poll findings and who's making up stuff as they go?
If you haven't guessed similarly, Mr Gerson appears to be still employed by the R's to spin events to their political advantage.
And, boy, do they need that!
But, is this the way to convince thinking people?
And, if thinking people aren't seen as important to R's, who do they represent?
Any political party who falls from power so far and fast, must have done some egregious, self-inflicted damage to itself.
In light of the R's own behavior during the past 8 years, Gerson's appeal for more 'inclusiveness' from the D's seems exceptionally ridiculous.
Maybe the R's just seriously miscalculated Obama's 'toughness' and resolve, which they have repeatedly claimed.
Gerson is just the latest to do the extreme mental gymnastics required to make every R position seem reasonable.
Why, it's a wonder he doesn't spend every day with a chiropractor - or understudying a contortionist!
The Republicans are merely trying to cover their collective butts, while practicing those tried and true 3 'D's' used by extreme fringe groups the world over;
Deny, Decry, Delay.
That's what true losers do when they don't get their way.
Wouldn't it be more effective to just participate by actually making a few constructive suggestions as thoughtful individuals, rather than slavishly following the ritual of group think, dictated by party hacks?
And what about this party-oriented block voting thing?
Think about it.
It has been the R's own arrogance has brought them down, combined with the overwhelming need for reform and change that Obama so charismatically recognized and communicated.
R's & D's are not polar opposites, and it is silly to pretend so.
But, there are always more than one way to view an issue, which is healthy.
The trick is to be honest in the process, otherwise all bets are off.
And, it doesn't matter which party is in power.
Tell me again, what is Obama's approval rating after -what- almost 3 whole months in office?
Let's keep that little indisputable fact in perspective, shall we?