Do American Voters Even Want Political Unity?

The evidence is mixed.

Do Americans want a great unifier?

It’s a question worth asking as the Democratic convention goes completely off script on Day One. In contrast to the Republicans’ gathering in Cleveland last week, this was supposed to be a disciplined, professionally run show displaying a party united for Hillary Clinton and against Donald Trump. Instead, anti-Clinton protests have already attracted more media attention than all the Cleveland protests combined, with some protesters even echoing the Republican chant “Lock her up!” Bernie Sanders, whom most of the protesters support, pleaded with attendees to back Clinton as the only way to beat Trump, but hundreds of delegates – not just protesters on the street – booed him raucously.

Intraparty warfare is hardly new, and it has been worse. The Democratic convention in 1924 went to 103 ballots, and I bet you can’t name the nominee. (It was a corporate lawyer named John W. Davis.) But today’s infighting is part of a larger trend of polarization at every level. Political scientists tracking legislators’ votes have shown that since World War II, both parties have moved further from the center, more so since the 1970s. Within the Senate, the same type of analysis shows that 50 years ago, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats overlapped in a broad center containing senators of both parties. The number of senators in that centrist group has since dwindled until today there are none – there’s no overlap at all.

The polarizing trend has continued over the past week. The Democrats have produced “the most progressive platform in the party’s history,” in the words of Connecticut Governor and platform committee chairman Dannel Malloy. The Republicans have approved a platform so isolationist and anti-trade that it’s barely even Republican.

The conventional view that the country has grown more polarized is true. Now consider a disturbing possibility: Do we in fact like it that way? Are we becoming people who would rather fight than unite? The evidence is mixed. President Obama won in 2008 in part by campaigning as a unifier – voters liked that message – but polarization has galloped ahead in the past eight years. We could devote a seminar to trying to explain why. We probably shouldn’t ignore that fighting makes much better TV than harmony does.

As for the practical challenges facing the Dems, the job of this convention is to spend the first three days uniting the party behind Clinton, and then for Clinton on Day Four to begin her attempt to unite 270 electoral votes’ worth of the country behind her. After that, for whoever wins, the job is to unite the country.

Which brings us back to the question of whether a significant number of voters want that. Or is such a framing of the issue all wrong? Is the real issue not the mood of the voters but rather the absence of a leader who could unify?

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