Bruce Stokes saw the interview on TV and it summed up an astonishing reality of US politics. An American mother says she voted for Donald Trump and then realised that Obamacare had saved her son’s life.
Trump campaigned on a pledge to tear up Obamacare, Barack Obama’s health insurance plan that provided subsidised health insurance to tens of millions of Americans who’d never been able to afford any.
The mother explains that her son needed an expensive procedure that she could not have afforded otherwise. So how will you vote next time, the interviewer asks? I’ll vote for Trump again, she replies.
Trump has so far failed to persuade the US Congress to repeal Obamacare in its entirety, so on Friday (Australian time) the President signed an executive order that starts to dismantle it, a bit at a time, as he promised he’d do. He also promises to replace it, but the replacement version is so far unexplained and non-existent.
Stokes, a pollster at the non-partisan Pew Research Centre in Washington, says: “The data suggest one should not underestimate the deep partisan divide in the US that can, at times, transcend what might appear to be an individual’s self-interest”.
American politics has moved beyond reason. The woman is prepared to vote for a politician who is committed to stripping her family of life-saving healthcare. She is not alone.
Britain’s Independent newspaper reported that 27-year-old Thea Crane of Louisiana tried to explain to her family before the election that Obamacare had saved her life from a chronic blood-clotting disorder. Both her parents voted for Trump regardless. So did two of her three siblings. One of her brothers was so angry at her politics that he banned his daughters from speaking to her.
Republicans, said Crane, have “this preconceived notion” that Obamacare was only helping welfare-dependent people who were getting more government handouts than they should. A reporter for America’s Vox news interviewed voters in Kentucky who had enrolled for Obamacare yet voted for Trump. They thought that Obamacare’s premiums were too expensive and that Trump would “make Obamacare work better”.
And The Washington Post explained that Obamacare had provided coverage to 54-year-old former coal miner Clyde Graham of West Virginia, who suffered six ailments including diabetes.
Graham wasn’t sure exactly what Trump would do to his health insurance but trusted Trump’s promise to bring back jobs for coal miners. He figured that, if he got a job, it would probably carry health insurance with it and he wouldn’t need to worry. He voted for Trump.
American politics has long been hyperpartisan. Voters, especially Republicans, have long been prepared to overlook their own economic interests to vote for the party that represents their cultural interests.
These were the people whom Obama dismissively described as having taken refuge in “guns and god”. But America’s hyperpartisanship continues to intensify. What is even more intense than hyperpartisanship? Lunapartisanship? New Pew research published this week begins: “The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values – on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas – reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.”
And Pew’s Carroll Doherty points out that partisanship has enlarged its scope, reaching into more and more areas of life, so that “it’s covering almost every issue, even things that didn’t used to be partisan political”.
Is the economy doing well or badly, for instance, is now answered not according to the state of the economy but the voter’s political affiliation. So the percentage of Republicans saying that the economy is doing well has doubled in the past year, not because the economy has palpably improved but because “their guy” is in the White House.
Even voters’ view of the quality of life 50 years ago now moves according to political leaning – the conditions of 50 years ago haven’t changed, only the partisan filter on them, according to who’s in power.
In brief, here are three of Pew’s central findings on how the gap has become a chasm.
One: Should the government do more to help the needy, even if it means getting government deeper into debt? In 2011, about twice as many Democrats as Republicans said yes, or 54 to 25 per cent to be exact. Today it’s almost three times as many, at 71 per cent to 24.
Next, do immigrants improve the country through their talents and hard work, or are they a burden because they take “our jobs, housing and healthcare”? Among Democrats a whopping 84 per cent say they are a strength, up by over 50 percentage points since 1994. Only half as many Republicans say so, or 42 per cent.
Third, is good diplomacy the better way to preserve peace or is military strength? Eighty-three per cent of Democrats say diplomacy, while 33 per cent of Republicans say so. The gap on that question has blown out from 16 points in 1994 to 50 today. The implications for America’s willingness to use armed force are obvious. More than ever, it’s likely to depend on which party happens to hold the White House.
Beyond these findings, and perhaps most astonishing, the Pew research suggests that a person’s choice of political party now dominates how they form their views on everything else. As the Pew puts it: “The magnitude of these divisions dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance and education.” In other words, where religion or education might once have been the critical factor in deciding a voter’s party affiliation, it’s now driven by a party tag.
What about the tug of identity politics, where people are encouraged to vote according to their race or gender or sexuality? “People are more consistently lining up with the position of their parties” rather than their allocated “identity”, says Doherty.
“When we started polling in the 1990s, there were differences between black and white Democrats. Now they are the same,” he says. “People will appeal to voters on identity, but within a partisan framework.”
If partisan urges are driving everything else, what’s driving partisan urges? It’s less about voters’ hopes and dreams and more about fear and anger. The percentage of people feeling negative about the opposing party has doubled in 20 years, on Pew’s data. So when it comes to, say, healthcare policy, the voter increasingly takes a position based on the view that “we aren’t policy experts, all we know is we hate the other guy”, in the words of Marc Hetherington, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and author of Polarisation and Authoritarianism in American Politics.
“The key thing about polarisation is that it isn’t really the issue. There are ideas that were Republican that are Democrat now. The idea for Obamacare came from the Heritage Foundation,” a conservative Washington think tank, says Hetherington. The Democrats didn’t like it because the marketplace played a central role in the policy, the same reason that the Republicans initially liked it.
Mitt Romney as Republican governor of Massachussetts implemented the same concept in his state: “When he did, only one or two Republicans voted against it. When Barack Obama put it to the House, only one Republican voted for it. When the Democrats adopted it, the Republicans turned against it. So it’s not about the issue, it’s the party.”
And what’s driving partisan antagonisms? Marc Hetherington says that the Republicans was a party prepared to compromise while it was in a congressional minority.
“But in 1994 when the Republicans proved that they could win a majority in the House, something they hadn’t done since the 1950s, it changed the strategy of both parties.” Because the party in majority collects credit for any legislative achievements, the Republicans stopped compromising, says Hetherington, “and you got gridlock. There are no incentives for co-operating.”
Pew’s Doherty says intransigence and hostility has been “filtering down from the top” of the Washington leadership on both sides, with the media amplifying the partisan divide. Then the media itself realigned according to party lines, with Fox News pioneering the way for the Republicans and MSNBC following for the Democrats. All of which helps explain why Donald Trump has the lowest approval rating of any president at this point in his term, in the mid-30s range, but still commands atmospheric levels of support among Republican voters of around 80 per cent. And it doesn’t much matter what Trump does or fails to do, the people who voted for him won’t blame Trump. Whatever happens, they’ll blame the Democrats, or the elite establishment.
“It’s too painful for them to blame Trump, just as it was too painful for liberals to blame Obama,” says Hetherington.
Where is it all leading? While the entire country and all possible identities and issues have realigned themselves along the lines of the two parties, the parties themselves are showing deep fault lines.
Civil war in the Democrats has opened up between Bernie Sanders leftists and Clinton centrists, and in the Republicans between the traditional pro-business elite and the Trump populists.
“We are now really right on the cusp of a real fracturing of the political system and a reorganisation of the parties,” says Hetherington.
When irrationality and dysfunction prevail and good government is impossible, perhaps it’s time.
Peter Hartcher is political editor.