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Pugnacious Politics Reflect a Growing Voter Divide

A pollster believes he has unraveled one of the major mysteries of political life: Why have politicians in Sacramento and Washington become more polarized?

And with it, more partisan and pugnacious.

True, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has used his muscle to loosen the gridlock and tame the belligerents in Sacramento. But this probably is only temporary, until the lawmakers detect some weakness. Besides, other than placing two propositions on the ballot, the new so-called spirit of cooperation hasn’t led to much.

There really is no deep mystery to the polarization, says pollster Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California. The politicians merely are reflecting the people they represent, the voters who elect them. These voters are becoming more polarized -- the voters who are Democrats or Republicans.

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This amounts to roughly 79% of registered voters -- 43% Democrat, 36% Republican.

The bottom-up polarization between the two major parties has been exacerbated in Sacramento by a 2001 legislative gerrymandering that shaped districts to protect the parties then holding the seats. Competition was greatly reduced between Democratic and Republican candidates in November, which meant that elections were all but decided in the primary. It’s a scheme that encourages candidates to focus on the left or right extremes of their parties -- and tends to elect extremists.

One solution is to take redistricting away from the Legislature and give it to an independent body. Another way to elect more moderates is to return to an open primary that allows voters to choose any candidate they wish, regardless of party. Reformers are preparing ballot initiatives on each issue.

But neither reform gets to the root cause of political polarization: and that’s polarization of the people.

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There has always been a natural gulf between Democrats and Republicans, but Baldassare’s new measurements show that the chasm in California is getting wider and deeper.

For example, on immigration: The pollster asked people whether they thought “immigrants are a benefit to California because of their hard work and job skills” or “are a burden because they use public services.” Among likely voters, the reply was 49% benefit, 41% burden.

But the political parties were far apart -- 61% of Democrats saying immigrants benefit California, compared to only 32% of Republicans. That’s a “party divide,” Baldassare notes, of 29%. Four years ago, it was just 18%.

Baldassare found the party divide growing on several issues:

* Same-sex marriage. 43% of likely voters favor, 51% oppose. But among Democrats, 57% favor, compared to only 23% of Republicans. That’s a party divide of 34%, up 8% from 2000.

* Abortion. “Government should not interfere.” Agree: 74%. But 82% of Democrats agree, compared to 59% of Republicans, a gap 5% wider.

* Environment. “Stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost.” Agree: 60%. But among Democrats, 71% agree. Only 42% of Republicans do, a gap-widening of 16%.

The same pattern also was seen on the issues of government benefits for poor people and civil liberties abuses with anti-terrorism laws. There were expanding ravines between Republicans and Democrats.

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More black or white views. Fewer gray shades.

“People in the middle are more lonely now -- both in the Legislature and throughout the state,” says Baldassare.

The polarization was evident Saturday at a Republican state convention in Burlingame, where hundreds of delegates were whipped up at an anti-illegal immigration rally staged by former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, a candidate for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination.

Delegates protested President Bush’s plan to offer legal status for undocumented workers and Schwarzenegger’s intention to reach a compromise that would provide driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. “Enough is enough,” they chanted.

One speaker was Ron Prince, author of the anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187, who urged delegates to remember the Americans “who died in the Alamo” fighting Mexicans.

Annoyed party leaders -- trying to reach out to Latinos offended by Prop. 187 a decade ago -- attempted to detract reporters from the rally. They wouldn’t allow notices about it to be left in the press room. And they staged an unrelated news conference about the time the rally started. But they couldn’t deter delegates from attending or reporters from covering.

The driver’s license issue is so polarized, Assembly GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield told me, that it really cannot be productively debated in the Legislature. “People have locked-in views.”

On that and other issues, it seems. “There’s less of a desire to find a middle,” Baldassare notes.

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Why? He’s not sure.

Blame coarser communication: Talk radio revved up for ratings. Screaming TV pundits. Media blowhards on the left and the right, but few in the middle. An impersonal Internet. Faceless e-mail spewing venom. Negative political ads.

We need to talk more to each other and listen less to shock jocks. Debate while looking people in the eye. Control the video addiction.

Meanwhile, don’t entirely blame the polarized politicians for representing the polarized people.

*

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com. Read previous columns at latimes.com/skelton.


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