Julia Azari in FiveThirtyEight:
We’re now one year into the Trump era, and politics seems more nasty, divided and polarized than ever. A government shutdown is imminent over immigration policy. Congress hasn’t passed a single, major bipartisan bill. President Trump’s approval rating among Democrats has fallen to 5 percent. Some reports suggest that a quarter of Americans have real animosity toward the other party. You’d be forgiven for wondering why we can’t just go back to those halcyon days of bipartisanship. Remember when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill would supposedly come to compromise over drinks?
Here’s the thing: By some measures, the United States is more partisan than ever, but that more peaceful and unified past, that golden age of unity, was … pretty much never.
Let’s think for a moment about what the nature of political division looks like right now in the U.S. Using presidential election results, my FiveThirtyEight colleague David Wasserman found that elections are getting less and less competitive at the county level; a record number of counties in 2016 voted for either Trump or Hillary Clinton in a blowout. This is consistent with findings in political science that even when national presidential races are competitive, many individual states are not. Political scientists have characterized the polarized U.S. as “two one-party nations,” instead of one two-party nation.
The issues we fight over — gender, race, immigration, culture and the role of government — divideAmericans neatly and consistently under party labels. The current moment feels divisive because major policy and political questions are “sorted” between the parties — Republicans are mostly unified around one set of answers, and Democrats are mostly unified around another.