OPINION — There is a lot still to be learned from the midterm elections as analysts pour over incoming data, but one thing we do know is that this was a terribly divisive election, reflecting a growing disunity that isn’t good for either party or the nation.
Voters know it, too. The 2018 exit polls asked voters whether the country, politically, was becoming more or less divided. By a margin of 76 percent to 9 percent, people opted for “more divided,” an ominous sign that something has to change.
I’d like to think the country that has been a “shining city on a hill” for going on 250 years still exists outside the bitter political acrimony dividing families and friends on a scale we’ve never seen. But should we be surprised?
Turn on cable or open the opinion pages, and what purports to be commentary is closer to partisan propaganda, driving argument with over-the-top hyperbole and personal attacks. We see TV pundits calling the president of the United States a “racist pig” and worse, and Republicans lobbing their own verbal attacks as political discourse devolves into name-calling and personal denunciation.
Democrats call Republicans bigots and heartless. Republicans call Democrats evil socialists. It goes on and on, and on both sides, with the media fanning the flames.
All this has been amplified by the inflammatory campaign “messages” developed by strategists and ad gurus bent on winning by any means necessary.
Well, for those invested in the diminution of civil discourse in our politics, congratulations. What has been the greatest experiment in democracy in human history might now be better termed “The Great Divide,” because that’s where we find ourselves as a nation in the aftermath of the November election.
This week, Axios released a new poll, conducted by SurveyMonkey, with a headline grabber — “Most Democrats see Republicans as racist, sexist.” Actually, 61 percent of Democrats see the GOP that way, along with ignorant (54 percent) and spiteful (44 percent).
In an open-ended question, Axios asked Democrats to describe Republicans. They used words like “selfish, greedy, corrupt and bad” to describe their political opponents.
Republicans were slightly more restrained. Only 31 percent of Republicans said Democrats are racist and sexist; but not to be outdone, 49 percent called Democrats ignorant, and 54 percent said they were spiteful.
So where does this deeply ingrained partisan division leave those in the political center — the people who don’t get up every day breathing fire and who don’t understand or like the anger and vitriol that have overtaken political debate today? It leaves them in the middle, disgusted with both parties and the kind of campaigns they’re running.
It’s important to understand that independents, those who operate in that political center, determined the outcome of this election just as they always do. It’s also important to understand that independents are generally center-right, with more saying they lean conservative than liberal.
But, there is one more thing to know about independents. They tend to swing one way or the other — good news for Republicans if they can reach independents in 2020 with issues that push the political pendulum back their direction. As we saw this year, immigration, a party base issue, couldn’t deliver the independent votes needed to push competitive House races over the finish line.
In fact, Republicans lost the independent vote nationally by 12 points, the first time the GOP has lost independents since 2008, which is also the last time they lost the House.
What we saw in 2018 was Republicans becoming slightly more conservative and Democrats slightly more liberal. In other words, both parties were moving ideologically toward their bases, while independents were moving away from ideology.
In 2016, the exit polls showed that when independents were given the choice of describing themselves as liberal or conservative, 53 percent identified with one ideology or the other. In this election, that number dropped 4 points to 49 percent.
With the incoming Democratic House majority working with a Republican Senate and president, what does this mean for divided government? In order to “make the marriage work,” both parties are going to have to do three things.
First, recognize that neither party’s base is enough to sustain a majority and start listening to independent voters who will determine who is in the majority. Second, while both parties have their respective views and concerns, find issues to work on that will get things done for the America people. The parties need to focus on not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Finally, turn down the temperature. When it comes to hot rhetoric and independents, less is more.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.
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