The gulf in the opinions of American voters has never been greater than today. Republicans and Democrats live in their own worlds and even see their opponents as a threat.
Even if the Republicans win the next congressional election in three weeks, the results will lead to an even greater paralysis of American politics. Dry statistics say a surprising amount about the political situation in the United States. Especially when they are interpreted by Bruce Stokes, one of the leading experts of the nonpartisan think tank Pew Research Center.
He is visiting Sweden and holding court for a small group of journalists and other interested parties in one of the U.S. Embassy’s chambers on Strandvägen, in Stockholm.
The picture he paints of the political situation in his homeland is, in a way, frightening. Never before in modern history have so many Americans seen themselves as steadfast Democrats or Republicans. The movement between the parties is at a record low.
But that’s not all. A large part of the electorate sees the opposition as a danger to the country. In fact, 36 percent of Republicans have this perception of the Democratic Party, and 27 percent of Democrats think the same of the Republican Party.
“It is not just about thinking differently,” said Bruce Stokes. “They see their political opponents as a threat.”*
Stokes describes Americans as living increasingly in "ideological ghettos," where they just spend time with other people who share their views. It reinforces one's own perceptions and reduces sympathy for the opponent.
This is particularly serious in a political system based on cooperation and compromise, and is probably also an important explanation for why the United States Congress has become more and more dysfunctional. There is no hope that the situation will change after the elections to the Senate and House of Representatives in three weeks.
Polls suggest that the Republicans will gain a majority in both the House and Senate. On paper, this means that Republicans can push their bills through. However, President Obama sits in the White House and will use his veto. To override a veto, a two-thirds majority is required, something which neither of the parties is capable of achieving.
So the inability to make decisions will continue. According to Stokes, 80 percent of the proposals Obama put forth during the his first two years failed. No Congress in modern times has passed fewer laws.
Obama is still trying to realize the first order he signed after moving into the White House, to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, where suspected al-Qaida terrorists were transferred from all over the world. Republicans have, with the help of some Democrats, blocked the decision by refusing to give any money to pay for moving them to American prisons.
The inability to drive through their own policies is probably the main reason that American presidents’ popularity curves look like a steep ski slope. When he took office, Obama had the backing of 64 percent of the American people who thought he did a good job. Today, that figure is down to 42 percent. For George W. Bush, the change was even more dramatic — from 86 percent to 24.
The current world situation can save Obama. The horror of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 is never far below the surface of the American psyche. The Islamic State is seen as a very real threat by many Americans. Therefore, Obama has received strong support for his decision to gather an international coalition to crush the Islamic State group, despite Americans having demonstrated considerable war fatigue for quite some time.
“It’s amazing how quickly Americans changed their position,” says Bruce Stokes.*
Then it does not matter that a clear majority think America's power in the world has declined during the last decade. For Obama, it is still foreign policy which can give him one last chance to turn around the negative opinion polls of his last two years in office. In this area he can make most decisions for himself, no matter what a paralyzed Congress may think.
*Editor’s note: These quotes, though accurately translated, could not be sourced as they were made in a private meeting.