WASHINGTON — The House Democratic majority’s vote last week to impeach President Donald Trump — and the Senate Republican majority’s expected acquittal next year — reflect a deep partisan divide in America that research shows has grown to near-peak levels.
For many Americans, the memo of the July 25 phone call in which Trump asks newly elected Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his country’s role in the 2016 U.S. election and Democrat Joe Biden and his son has become a political Rorschach test.
Democrats charge that Trump betrayed the national interest for his personal political benefit, but Republicans respond that Trump did nothing wrong — and members on both parties angrily and heatedly accuse the other side of falling in line with partisan politics.
“It’s hard to believe that partisan feelings can get any more intense than they are, yet I think that’s a good bet. Dislike has grown to outright hatred on both sides,” University of Virginia politics Prof. Larry Sabato said.
Whether Trump wins reelection or a Democrat prevails next year, Sabato said, “Sometimes I wonder how we will manage to hold together as a nation over the next five years.”
The intense partisan battle over the impeachment has roots in the 1980s and 1990s but has grown sharply in recent years, according to research conducted on the political, demographic and psychological dimensions of partisanship.
Americans have become so much more polarized into two major camps and many of them now increasingly dislike or even hate those in the other party, even if their differences on issues are not that large, political scientists say their research has found.
People have “sorted” themselves, researchers say, to be with others like themselves — by race, education, age and where they live — a pattern that shows up in maps of election returns with large swaths of red in the country’s interior and blue in cities and on the coasts.
And the overwhelming majorities of both Democrats and Republicans said that voters in both parties not only disagree over plans and policies but also cannot agree on “the basic facts,” according to a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in September.
“It’s not just polarization on issues anymore, it’s what we call affective polarization,” said Shana Gadarian, a political-science professor at Syracuse University who specializes in political psychology and communication.
That term means, she said, “Not only do I think of myself as a partisan, but I also dislike the other party because they’re unlike me on very many issues, and they’re just different from me in the way that they live, in the kind of cars they drive, their values.”
Gadarian said, “In the impeachment vote you’re seeing the reflection of all that.”
Lilliana Mason, who earned her doctorate in political psychology at Stony Brook University and now teaches politics and government at the University of Maryland, has conducted research that shows that issue positions matter less than party membership.
Mason compared the sense of political identity to the fervor of fans of sports teams. “Each competition is linked to a whole bunch of different parts of who you think you are. And when you win, it feels better. When you lose, it hurts a lot more,” Mason said at a recent talk.
And animosity has grown since 2016, as Democrats and Republicans have expressed more negative opinions about each other on several traits and have increased their ratings of the level of “cold feeling” they have about their opponents, the Pew Research Center found in a September survey.
Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar, who has surveyed the literature on partisanship and polarization, primarily blames the heavy use of negative ads in political campaigns and the rise of social media.
“There's no editorial gatekeeping. Anyone can post anything. Misinformation is flying around everywhere,” he said. The splintering of the news media into political advocacy, Iyengar added, has diminished common ground as partisans go to outlets that echo their views.
Gadarian blamed Trump for his “ 'you're with me or you're against me’ kind of messaging” for accelerating polarization.
Republicans complain that the coastal Democratic elites look down their noses at Republicans in the interior of the country.
“You see a lot of anger in right-wing media,” Gadarian said. “The messaging is, ‘You are being left out of the mainstream media, we have the answers here, the other side doesn’t think you’re smart,” and some of that is driving this affective polarization.”
There is less in left-wing media, she said, but she sees “some of that” on the show of liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.
Trump, meanwhile, has focused on his base and done little outreach to Democrats. The White House has insisted that Trump has reached out and increased the support of black voters, Sabato said. But he added, “Few would disagree that Trump is a divider, not a uniter.”
Jennifer McCoy, a Georgia State University political science professor, said the increasing division also poses a risk to democratic institutions such as the courts, intelligence agencies and investigative journalism.
“Our views about them, and even about the integrity of elections, have become polarized themselves,” she said.
Most alarming is that the acceptance of science and facts has been undermined by refusals to believe empirical research or facts. “It's a pretty ominous development, the idea that evidence is no longer relevant,” Iyengar said.
Looking ahead to next year, McCoy said, “The divide is likely to continue and deepen in the 2020 election cycle.”
But Stanford political science Prof. Morris Fiorina disagreed that the impeachment vote mirrored a divided electorate.
Lawmakers were “responding to the demands of their activist base,” he said, and he doubts it will have “much impact in the real world. It does further enrage Trump's base, but acquittal in the Senate will further enrage the progressive base, so, on balance, no change.”
The high levels of partisanship could be lessened by members of the two parties interacting in nonpolitical settings and could be dampened by a national emergency, such as the 9/11 attack in which the whole country pulled together for a while, the researchers said.
And others point out that the United States has been through other periods of hyper-partisanship before and has recovered — even if it came from a generational change.
“It's a temporary moment,” Iyengar said, and will change “at some point, given the increasing diversity of the American population.”