After Gov. Roy Cooper’s State of the State address last month, N.C. Senate Leader Phil Berger delivered a hard-edged response in which he said: “the institutions of the Left – the press, the Democratic Party, and liberal special interests – have ginned up great controversy and false outrage. They organize vulgar rallies and protests. They disrupt public meetings. They attempt to sabotage our state’s economy and put regular North Carolinians out of business. They call Republicans ignorant, dishonest, immoral, racist, bigoted, anti-women, anti-voter, anti-education – even treasonous.”
A senator since 2000, Berger has held leadership positions since 2004 and has a reputation for civility. The tone and content of his response to Cooper’s speech was thus out-of-character, but perhaps understandable given the pressures Berger is under with a Democratic governor and constant attacks from in and out of the state over HB2 and other controversial laws.
The reality is that Berger’s tone and substance reflect the beliefs of his Republican base, as do similarly harsh statements made by Democrats that reflect their base constituents. According to findings of the recent Meredith Poll, North Carolinians believe political polarization is at historic levels, with 86.7 percent saying the country is more divided than in the past.
That a large majority of North Carolinians think that the nation and state are highly polarized is not surprising, given the 2016 election and its aftermath. However, when we asked open-ended questions about what people thought about conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, the intensity of citizens’ perceptions of those different from them was surprising and concerning.
The most often-used word that Democrats used to describe conservatives and Republicans was “racist,” with terms like “evil,” “stupid,” and “uncaring” all being used by a significant number of registered Democrats. Likewise, registered Republicans most frequently used descriptions of liberals and Democrats as “dishonest,” “whiny,” “losers,” and “evil.” Unaffiliated voters had equal disdain for conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans, with “liars” being most commonly used, followed by “hypocrites,” “weak,” and “out of touch.”
In addition to the language used, 93 percent of Democrats think the GOP is more extreme and 94 percent of Republicans believe Democrats are more extreme.
These results don’t bode well for those who hope that hyper-partisanship subsides and that political discourse becomes more civil. Instead, these results point to some long-term implications:
1. Elected leaders will continue to stake out extreme policy positions and view compromise as politically untenable, especially on hot button issues.
2. Political parties will continue to lose influence over increasingly larger segments of the population, as people decide that neither party represents them. Because party identification is a large part of voting, this may mean that turnout will drop precipitously.
3. Citizens will continue to see protests and legal actions as their main ways of affecting the outcomes of policies they disagree with.
There are many causes of the hyper-partisanship affecting North Carolina and the United States, but few easy solutions. However, civil discussion and compromise are essential to a functioning democracy, so we must continue to try.
David McLennan is a visiting professor of Political Science and Director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College. Whitney Ross Manzo is an assistant professor of Political Science and assistant director of the Meredith Poll.