For a time after 9/11, President George W. Bush wasn’t merely the leader of his party or even the government. He epitomized our entire nation — everything that we went through, everything that we had become and everything that we hoped to be — as patriotism trumped partisanship.
Similarly, after Giffords was shot in January, most Americans experienced a period of self-reflection during which even some of those fanning the flames of political anger expressed remorse. Calls for civility and tolerance trumped the bitter partisan sniping and name-calling to which we’ve become accustomed.
It’s no accident that after both tragedies, the sitting president’s job approval ratings improved.
Bush’s Gallup poll approval shot up from 51 percent immediately before the 9/11 attacks to 86 percent and eventually 90 percent in the days after the attacks. His disapproval fell from 39 percent just before Sept. 11 to 6 percent during the third week of September.
President Barack Obama’s standing in national polls did not move nearly as much, but his Gallup ratings slightly improved in the wake of coverage of the shooting and the Congresswoman’s struggle for life.
Americans rallied around Bush in a reflexive show of patriotism and support. The different nature of the tragedies and the hardened animosity of many voters toward Obama undoubtedly account for the difference in the public’s response after the two tragedies.
In both cases, however, these pauses from our usual condition of sharp political division and rhetoric evaporated when Americans got back to discussing matters of public policy. When that happened, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats once again began to question each other’s motives, convictions, values, integrity and morality.
By the third week in February, just six weeks after the Tucson shootings, Obama’s ratings were almost exactly where they had been before the Congresswoman was shot, according to Gallup.
Bush’s job approval stayed up far longer, not surprising given the nature of the terrorist attacks and the U.S. response. His disapproval didn’t hit 39 percent again until September 2003, two full years after the attack.
Clearly, partisanship and a lack of civility have become the norm in our political debates, though political scientists disagree about the depth of our polarization and even whether it is good or bad.
Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz argues that polarization among political elites reflects the polarization among the general public, which accompanies a more informed and engaged (and ideological) public.
Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina, on the other hand, argues that most Americans sit in the political center and only the political class has become polarized. Ordinary Americans are more moderate and civil than their elected officials, Fiorina insists.
But even if Fiorina is correct, for the moment that doesn’t much matter. Our current system is producing ideological politicians who are sensitive to their most ideological constituents and to the heavily ideological media, not to the political center.
Frustrated with politicians’ inability to get America’s economic house in order and with unfulfilled promises of fiscal responsibility (to say nothing of their cultural differences with the bicoastal elite), conservatives simply no longer trust the people who have been in charge, whether they are Democrats or Republicans. Slowing the rate of growth of government no longer is enough.