A large segment of the of the country viewed the inauguration of President Donald Trump Friday with trepidation. Many others were glad to see former President Barack Obama vacate the White House.
If you think political polarization is getting worse, you are right. Polls show Bill Clinton was the most polarizing president in recent memory, until George W. Bush came along, who was then replaced on the polarization meter by Obama, according to Dan Balz, the veteran political reporter and author for The Washington Post.
No president has entered the White House with a lower voter approval rating than Trump.
I thought things were bad after Obama’s election, when a couple of days after the vote – but well before his inauguration – a reader called me demanding his impeachment. But a new poll released last week by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based firm with Democratic ties, found that 34 percent of North Carolina voters think Trump should be impeached – before he takes office.
A certain minority of voters are shouting: “You’re fired,” before his first day of work.
Two of North Carolina’s three Democratic congressmen boycotted the inaugural. Marches were planned in Washington, Raleigh and elsewhere on Saturday.
The growing political polarization was the subject of a round of discussions last week at Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute, as part of an ongoing effort called The Purple Project.
North Carolina is ground zero in political polarization – a place of sharp-elbowed politics, some of the nation’s worst gerrymandering, the “Moral Monday” demonstrations and the HB2 legislation and subsequent national boycott that has placed the state in the center of the gay rights and transgender battles.
“North Carolina is in a lot of ways a microcosm of what is happening nationally,” said Fritz Mayer, a Duke political science professor overseeing The Purple Project.
There are a lot of reasons why political polarization has increased. People are now getting their information from separate news sources often offering different interpretations of events. Gerrymandering means that most lawmakers are now in safe districts where ideological purity is now more important than appealing to the middle. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have in recent decades undergone an ideological sorting process, taking on a more ideological edge.
There is also self-segregation going on. Along with a decline of civic life, people are tending to move into neighborhoods and join churches with like-minded individuals. All of this has resulted in an “empathy gap,” according to Peter Feaver, a Duke political science professor who served in both the George W. Bush and Clinton White Houses.
“We have become so polarized not just as politicians but as citizens that we can’t imagine a good-hearted person holding the opposite political views from us,” Feaver said. “We feel we have to de-legitimize both their views and their emotions. If we disagree with them it must be because they have a pathology or a phobia of some sort. All the good people feel the same way I do.
“When you are friends with someone – really friends with them – it’s much harder to demonize their views,” Feaver said.
That is why, Feaver said, the most polarizing language is used on the Internet from anonymous strangers who do not know who you are or anything about you.
Joe Klein, a veteran Time magazine columnist, several years ago visited a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in North Carolina and heard an interesting suggestion. The vets said the military draft should be re-instituted. Universal military service was a bonding experience for Americans and cut across political philosophies.
There is also a broad discontent that goes far beyond the U.S. borders that is influencing much of Europe – a backlash against globalization, mass immigration and terrorism, combined with a new nationalism.
Despite the discontent that seems widespread, it is sometimes helpful to look at things from a different perspective. Last year, I visited Eastern Europe, which was ravaged by both the Nazis and the Communists. A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau or the old secret police headquarters, now a museum called the House of Terror in Budapest, used for torture by first the fascists and then the Communists, is a strong reminder of how fortunate we Americans have been.