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June 10, 2012

HAYDEN: Poll reveals growing political divide, disgust

INDIANAPOLIS — Here’s a news flash: Americans have become more politically polarized than at any time in the past 25 years.

That’s according to a major survey released in early June by the Pew Research Center.

Okay, maybe that’s not “news.” The survey results are certainly newsworthy but are you surprised?

Over the last month, I’ve written a series of columns about the low voter turnout in Indiana’s May primary and posed the question “why?” in various forms.

The consistent response from many readers is that they feel repulsed by the polarizing nature of partisan politics. They said they didn’t vote in the primary — or didn’t want to vote but held their nose and did so anyway — because they didn’t want to have to identify themselves as either Democratic or Republican to get a ballot.

I understand the visceral response. The inbox of my email is already filled with hyperbole-laced missives from representatives of both major parties and candidates. I’ve began to duck every time I get one. Here’s a word both sides love to fling: Hypocrite.

The Pew Research Center has been tracking partisan differences since 1987. The divide just keeps getting bigger with Democrats moving to the left and Republicans moving to the right.

The differences reflect a valid division in world view, as the survey author notes: “Republicans are most distinguished by their increasingly minimalist views about the role of government and lack of support for environmentalism. Democrats have become more socially liberal and secular.”

More noteworthy, I think, is the growth of political independents.

Pew found that fewer Americans are affiliating with either of the major parties than at any time in the past 25 years. Tapping into Gallup poll data that goes back to 1939, the Pew researchers believe there are now more political independents than at any point in the past 75 years.

The Pew folks found that about 24 percent of people self-identify themselves as Republicans today; another 32 percent call themselves Democrats. Thirty-eight percent of Americans identify themselves as “independents.”

Here’s an email I received from a Republican, but I think it could have just as easily come from a Democrat. The writer is Robert Jones, a member of the town council in Pendleton. Like many elected officials in Indiana’s cash-strapped communities, he’s trying to figure out how to stretch fewer dollars to provide essential services.  

“I think many people are turned off by the partisan behavior of both political parties,” he wrote. “In too many instances, both parties spend their capital on running down the other side and not discussing their approach to problem-solving for the good of their citizens.  

“I think this turns people off,” he continued. “So they choose not to participate. They don’t want to identify with either party.”

That’s worth mourning, Jones said: “This country has many problems as we all know. But rather than attempting to solve these problems, politicians too frequently place their focus on the next election, ‘kick the can down the road’ as we say, fail to make sound decisions based on facts ... and call this progress.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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