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Bush Has Polarized U.S, Study Finds

by Jim Lobe

The 2004 Political Landscape
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Of all the campaign lines delivered in his stump speeches country-wide in the autumn of 2000 this one, "I'm a uniter, not a divider," was perhaps the most reassuring among voters who were not entirely sure what George W. Bush was all about.

But if the latest massive survey assessing voters' worldviews and values is correct, it turns out that Bush was as misleading in that as when he promised to pursue a "humble" foreign policy.

It turns out that Bush -- and the policies he has pursued, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon -- has polarized the electorate to a far greater extent than at any time since 1987, when the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press first began assessing basic values and outlooks of U.S. voters.

The intensity of that polarization, particularly along party lines, is also unprecedented, a fact that could presage an especially bitter presidential campaign just one year from now.

Democrats and Republicans, who are evenly divided number-wise, have not been so far apart in their basic outlooks since 1987. Nor have they ever felt as intensely about those views, not even on the eve of the 1994 Republican landslide that ended four decades of Democratic control of Congress, according to the report, 'The 2004 Political Landscape: Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized.'

What makes that conclusion all the more remarkable is that the polarization has taken place within just two years of Sept. 11, which created a moment of national unity as strong as any since perhaps the assassination of President John Kennedy 40 years ago.

"That spirit has dissolved amid rising political polarization and anger," according to Pew Director Andrew Kohut.

The report is based on the views of 2,528 adults who were polled in late July and another group of 1,515 questioned in mid-October.

The gap is widest over national security, says the survey. In the aftermath of 9/11, members of both parties supported an assertive and militaristic foreign policy, but Democrats have shifted away from that position, particularly in the wake of the Iraq war.

In the poll, 69 percent of Republicans agreed that "the best way to ensure peace is through military strength," a result largely unchanged since last year or even 1999.

While 55 percent of Democrats agreed with that phrase in 2002, the number has subsequently fallen to 44 percent, the lowest percentage ever. The result is that the gap between Republicans and Democrats on this question "has never been wider," according to Pew.

On this issue, respondents who identified themselves as "independents" -- the critical swing group that is likely to decide next year's election -- are "much closer to Democrats than Republicans." Last year, 62 percent of independents supported "peace through strength;" this year, the number fell to 51 percent.

The two 2003 surveys suggested that disillusionment with the Iraq war, among both Democrats and independents, rose significantly between July and October. While 85 percent of Republicans believed last month that going to war in Iraq was the "right decision," only 39 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents agreed.

On a related question, the survey found significant partisan division over the use of pre-emptive military action against potential enemies. While 83 percent of Republicans believe such attacks are often (34 percent) or sometimes (49 percent) justified, only a narrow majority of 52 percent of Democrats agreed.

The survey also found a significant gap in the ways that members of the two parties assess their patriotism. While nearly every citizen agrees with the statement "I am very patriotic," the poll found a large and growing division in the intensity with which that view is held.

Today, 71 percent of Republicans, versus only 48 percent of Democrats, say they completely agree with that statement. Again, independents tended more to the Democratic side, with 54 percent indicating complete agreement.

Similarly, asked whether they agreed with the statement, "We should all be willing to fight for our country, whether it is right or wrong," 62 percent of Republicans, 46 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of independents said 'yes.'

While national security issues sparked some of the biggest gaps, the survey also found major differences on economic and social issues.

Over the past four years, Democrats have become more critical of business and much stronger advocates of the social safety net.

Seventy-two percent of Democrats now say government should do more to help needy people, even at the risk of increasing the federal deficit, and about the same percentage said corporate profits are too high. Only 39 percent of Republicans agreed about helping needy people and 48 percent said they were troubled by corporate profits.

The survey detected a strong across-the-board increase in hostility to immigration, with 82 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats and independents supporting tighter immigration controls. But there is a growing gap in the intensity of these attitudes, with Republicans feeling more strongly, according to the survey.

It found significant partisan gaps as well over the notion of trading civil liberties for the sake of national security. Over one-half (54 percent) of Republicans said such a trade-off was necessary; only 39 percent of Democrats agreed.

Despite significantly greater tolerance across the board for some social issues, such as interracial dating and homosexuality, gaps on affirmative action are as wide as they were during the Reagan administration. More than four in ten Democrats approve of preferential treatment for blacks and other minorities, compared with 28 percent of independents and only 16 percent of Republicans.

For next year's presidential elections, the survey found an even 42-42 percent split between Bush and a generic Democrat, with 16 percent undecided.

While independents are generally closer to Democrats in their basic political, social and economic attitudes, according to the report, the percentage of people who identify themselves as Republicans has risen over the last three years, particularly in some key battleground states, such as Iowa and Michigan.

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Albion Monitor November 7, 2003 (

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