Princeton University

Polarization Removes the Ability to Make Distinctions

Polarization Removes the Ability to Make Distinctions

January 3rd, 2017, 3:25am by Sam Wang

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Bruce Springsteen has questioned Donald Trump’s competence to be president. His opinion is typical of the majority of Americans. How could voters have elected someone who is so widely seen as unready for the job? One answer is that polarization impairs the inclination of voters to act upon such problems.

In a Gallup poll released yesterday, about half of Americans expressed pessimism about Donald Trump’s readiness for the Presidency. This is a 30-point deterioration from the previous three presidents, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

Trump’s success in 2016 was made possible by partisan polarization. The net favorability of major candidates, whether winners or losers, has declined precipitously over the last sixty years.

It is amazing to think that Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney would attract such opprobrium. Stepping far back from partisan politics, their accomplishments and personal qualities are admirable. Yet by Gallup’s measure, candidates Clinton and Romney were seen as negatively as Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.

This phenomenon is closely related to the polarization that has gripped U.S. politics for the last several decades. Increasingly, voters see the opposition as totally unacceptable. Under such conditions, it becomes harder to detect genuine differences – or to act upon them. High negatives make crossover voting unthinkable.

Also, with such high negatives for both Clinton and Trump, many voters saw both candidates unfavorably, despite the fact that only one of the candidates (Trump) had his/her competence for office seriously questioned. Today, majorities of Americans do not express confidence in Trump’s ability to prevent major scandals, use military force wisely, or handle an international crisis. Trump’s extreme low scores in these domains are concerning for the coming year.

Tags: 2016 Election · President

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