It seems that President Trump has a unique ability to push people apart—launching trade wars, disrupting international agreements, or attacking immigrants and political opponents. He’s split family and other personal relationships. But even with a new person in the Oval Office, we’ll still be highly polarized. It’s not so much the president who is polarizing, it’s the presidency.
The gap in presidential approval ratings between Democrats and Republicans has grown continually over the past few decades. Republicans liked President Ford more than did Democrats, and Democrats liked President Carter more than did Republicans, but the difference in approval ratings between Democrats and Republicans for Ford and Carter was less than 30 percent. For President Obama, the approval gap was 70 percent, and for President Trump, it’s 77 percent.
Changing presidents makes one side of the political aisle much happier, but the other side disaffected. Which is exactly what we should expect when the immense power of the presidency rests in the hands of an executive who represents only one side of the political spectrum.
We won’t defuse our polarization simply by electing a different president. Countries reduce political conflict when they make sure that both sides have a say in the making of public policy. That’s why last week’s peace agreement in the Sudan includes equal representation between the military rulers and the main opposition coalition on the transitional sovereign council.