GRAND FORKS -- Retired U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan points to 1990 and then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich when assigning blame for an era of aggressive campaigning in American politics.
“They put out something nationally saying ‘We’ve poll-tested these words and these are the words you should use to describe your opponents … words you would never use in North Dakota to describe your opponent,” said Dorgan, a Democrat who retired from the Senate in 2011.
Words such as “sick,” “radical,” and “traitor,” proved to form strong negative opinions of Democrats, while “opportunity,” “courage” and “principled” were recommended to boost the reputation of the Republicans, Gingrich’s own party.
“That began a process in which there was a dramatic coarsening of language in politics,” Dorgan said. “The campaigns began to get much, much more aggressive, much more negative.”
Since then, the widening ideological gap between Republicans and Democrats has been omnipresent. Statistics to support this idea, however, have been harder to find.
A new study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center, “Political Polarization in the American Public: How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life,” claims to have facts to back up the alleged divide and animosity between parties.
The study, which surveyed a random sample of 10,000 adults, showed that the median Democrat is much more consistently liberal, and the median Republican much more consistently conservative, than they were in 2004 and 1994. Also, using a scale of 10 political value questions, the overall percentage of Americans who identify at either extreme of the political spectrum - either consistently conservative or consistently liberal - has jumped from 10 percent to 21 percent.
In addition to the widening ideological gap, the percentage of Democrats who view Republicans “very unfavorably” grew from 16 percent to 38 percent, while the percentage of Republicans viewing of Democrats the same way grew from 17 percent to 43 percent.
Goodbye to compromise?
Although the survey’s findings might not seem to reveal anything new, the divide between Democrats and Republicans has potential consequences for how political activity works in the U.S.
“Today it’s just like, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, you’re bad, I’m good,’” said Ed Schafer, who served as a Republican governor North Dakota from 1993 to 2001 and was appointed U.S. secretary of agriculture by President George W. Bush in 2008.
He said that since at least 2006, when Democrats took over Congress, and then since Republicans re-took the House in 2010, both parties have been preoccupied with political gain rather than policies.
“We don’t give up the elections,” Schafer said of the constant political attacks.
Dorgan said he was dismayed by the findings of the study because of what they could mean about the future of political cooperation in the future.
“The study shows a very troubling trend for our country because the country needs the best of what both of our parties have to offer this country,” Dorgan said.
Dorgan said the wide ideology gap and lack of respect between Republicans and Democrats has made it difficult for collaborative, bipartisan efforts.
“The notion these days is that compromise is a four letter-word, which is too bad,” Dorgan said. “Compromise is the lubrication by which we make this country run.”
Republican Rick Berg, who was elected in 2010 to one term as North Dakota’s lone U.S. House member, said he said refusal to compromise on both sides stalled a new Farm Bill while he was in Washington.
“You had the far left people not wanting to change (spending on nutritional programs) and you had the far right people saying we should get out of agriculture entirely,” he said of the traditionally bipartisan legislation. “The bottom line for me is we couldn’t get a bill on the floor for a vote.”
Another contributing factor to the lack of compromise between the political left and right is what the study referred to as “ideological silos.” This phenomenon refers to when people are surrounded by (or surround themselves with) like-minded individuals and limit their exposure to the views of others.
“The growth of talk radio and cable television in recent decades has provided opportunities for people to tune in to hear political dialogue that reinforces what they already believe rather than hearing alternative views of political issues,” Dorgan said.
Berg said he sees a problem with Congress members mostly coming from districts that are solidly with one party or the other. Politicians are elected by appealing to one end of the spectrum and then find it hard to compromise.
“The rhetoric really boxes people in so they can’t fix the problem,” he said.
While political divides in Washington and between parties are apparent according to the Pew study, there seems to be somewhat of a different story in North Dakota.
Lloyd Omdahl, a former Democratic lieutenant governor of North Dakota and UND political science professor who writes a column for the Herald, said North Dakota’s small population tends to tone down the partisan hostility in the state, even though the traditionally red state has voted for the Republican candidate for the past 10 presidential elections.
“North Dakota is a small state but it has more of a common community of interest,” Omdahl said. “The Democrats in North Dakota are more moderate and even though the Republicans are becoming more conservative. I don’t think it changes the pattern that much.”
Omdahl said the national trend might not be as present here.
“I think you have to be kind of careful if you try to apply all of it to North Dakota. We’re more of a community than a state, so being that things are personal, I think people are more civil, and they think more civilly about each other.”
Staff writer Christopher Bjorke contributed to this report.